Am Pàipear’s festive edition

In our last paper of the year, we cover some of the most pressing issues facing the islands this winter, including flooding, ferries and energy security.

In cheerier news, we also have a comprehensive rundown of all the festive opportunities available in the run up to Christmas and some exciting award wins for sports stars and gin giants!

We also have the latest from our regular columns – Councillor Mustapha Hocine writes a heartfelt piece on child poverty and Stòras Uibhist’s Darren Taylor discusses the opportunities and responisbilities that come with community ownership.

Grid connection green light

The aged under sea cable connecting Uist to the national grid was thrown a lifeline at the end of November, when Ofgem softened its previous determination to reject replacement cable works.

The August issue of Am Pàipear detailed Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks’ (SSEN) plans to replace the current 31 year old, 46.1km Uist-Skye subsea cable with two shorter cables, running from Skye to Loch Carnan in the south and to Lochmaddy in the north. SSEN said the proposal would improve capacity resilience for the islands and reduce the risk of a catastrophic failure like the one that hit the Skye and Harris cable just two years ago.

Ofgem had made a draft determination to reject the cable proposals in June, a decision which SSEN and Uist community leaders strongly opposed.

Ofgem’s final determinations regarding country-wide energy infrastructure proposals were issued on Wednesday 30th November, and included a new way forward for the Uist cable works.

In its final determination, Ofgem concluded that proposals for the Uist cable replacement would now be subsumed into a broader project known as Hebrides and Orkney Whole systems (HOWS). Ofgem says it will allocate £20.6m in ex ante development funding to allow SSEN to undertake the required pre-construction investigative works.

SSEN will then be given a further opportunity to request the release of required funding to progress the Uist cable project within the next couple of years. At that point, and assuming that Ofgem supports the business case put forward, project funds to complete the cable replacement will go ahead.

An Ofgem spokesperson told Am Pàipear: “Our Final Determinations for Skye South-Uist has noted that while we accept the needs case, the engineering development is still required. We believe it is not in the consumers interest to provide funding in full at this stage.”

Cllr Paul Steele, Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said: “We are pleased that OFGEM has responded to valid concerns raised by the Uist and Barra community. Through vigorous and sustained engagement with the Regulator, we are now in a position where OFGEM is prepared to support the provision of new cables for Uist and Barra following final approval of SSEN Distribution’s plans. This is a good outcome for the islands given the extremely challenging electricity network climate that OFGEM are currently operating within.”

As Am Pàipear went to press, it was still not clear how this change of position might impact the speed and ease of the project’s completion, but community leaders were clear that the subsea cable works must be made a priority.

The sub sea cable not only secures Uist’s own incoming electricity supply, but allows community wind generators to export the power they generate back to the national grid, maintaining a crucial source of community income.

As a result of the Harris failure, insurance companies are no longer prepared to cover business losses associated with undersea cable failures, which leaves local community companies unable to recover lost income should the Uist cable fail.

Storas Uibhist CEO Darren Taylor said: “It is essential this work is now carried out as soon as possible as the cable is already categorised under the worst possible health index rating and may fail at any moment, like the Harris-Skye cable did in 2020.  We welcome the replacement, but maintain our position that an increase in cable capacity is the optimal solution to allow for greater production of renewable energy and economic growth for the islands.”

Flood management plans set out ‘potentially vulnerable areas’ of concern

The recent bad weather and subsequent flooding has brought climate change impacts horribly close to home.

Throughout November, main roads were flooded well beyond safe levels, and across the islands, a good number of village roads were impassable for days. Emergency services were called to support people travelling to work and school and in Kildonan, the cut-off villagers even made the national news.

Once such area impacted by flooding was Snishival, where Lexie and Iain MacDonald had to travel on foot over fields and fences to reach their home.

Lexie, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, spoke to Am Pàipear about the difficulties they faced: “I was coming home from work around 4pm and as I approached the Snishival bridge, it was clear that the water was well over the road. Thankfully, it was still fairly light and I was able to see just how deep it was. My husband was also heading home from work and we parked our cars back by the main road and together we set off for the hour-long walk across the crofts to get home. There are fences to get over and no clear path through. It was hard-going and at times we were ankle deep in water. By the time I got to my door, I was exhausted to the point of collapse.”

The issue is causing considerable worry for those who live in flood-prone areas, and it isn’t just a question of inconvenience, as Lexie explains: “In bad weather, you can’t be sure you will get home at all, so you have to plan ahead. I can’t leave the slow-cooker on anymore, for example, and there are worries about animals needing fed. If the weather looks bad, I just won’t go out, and I certainly now don’t go out in the winter evenings, and that can be quite isolating.”

Managing flood risk is a shared responsibility between SEPA, Local Authorities and other agencies, and which body is responsible for which particular part of this complex problem is not always clear cut.

The process by which flood is managed here in the Western Isles is set out in the Outer Hebrides Flood Risk Management Plan, the latest draft of which was open for consultation for three months last year, and is now due to be published by the Comhairle before the end of this year.

The Local Flood Management Plan details five ‘nationally significant’ Potentially Vulnerable Areas, which it lists as: a small section of Stornoway near the Point road; a good portion of North Uist; and the vast majority of Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. The Plan goes on to quantify the Western Isles risk by stating: “Currently it is estimated that there are 980 people and 820 homes and businesses at risk from flooding. This is estimated to increase to 1,500 people and 1,200 homes and businesses by the 2080s, due to climate change. The annual cost of flooding is approximately £3.4 million. Note however that flooding from wave overtopping is not fully represented in the assessment of flood risk and the impact of coastal flooding may be underestimated.”

The actions set out in the Plan include awareness raising, data gathering, flood forecasting and warning, hazard mapping, land use planning and maintenance. Aside from an objective to design, procure and construct the elements of the South Ford Flood Protection Scheme, there are very few actual works listed for the period of the Plan.

A Comhairle spokesperson told Am Pàipear: “The drainage systems in Uist can be quite complex and dependent on a variety of structures and open channels to operate effectively.  Ownership and maintenance responsibilities for structures and channels can be; private landowner, community landowner, tenant, Scottish Government (Agriculture and Rural Economy) or Local Authority (Comhairle).

“The Comhairle recognises the vulnerabilities in Uist to surface and tidal flooding and a requirement to better understand the present and future impacts in relation to climate change.  This can be achieved through the mechanisms of the Flood Risk Management Plan, however funding for flood studies is restrictive (£30k pa). 

“In a more immediate timescale the convening of a meeting of major stakeholders in South Uist, including SEPA, Storas Uibhist, Scottish Government, Scottish Water and the Comhairle, is being considered. This would be to agree a common approach to maintenance and response to flooding events.”

Stòras Uibhst CEO Darren Taylor said: “It is increasingly apparent that the current infrastructure across the estate, whether that it is the responsibility of Stòras, the Comhairle or the government, is struggling to cope with the rainfall we are now experiencing. In addition to carrying out work on certain drains that Stòras has responsibility for, we have supported townships over the last couple of years to carry out work and we would encourage all township clerks to contact us to discuss projects that need funding in 2023.

“We are also planning to carry out major improvements to the bridge at Snishival in 2023.  We will also be working closely with townships on Benbecula in 2023 to develop a coordinated plan for improvements to the main drain there. Stòras will do its part but we cannot tackle the problem on our own. Specifically we will be pushing the government for improvements to the Roe Glas outlet, which are needed urgently.”

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, CNES Chair of Transportation & “I am acutely aware of the growing concerns within communities in Uist and Barra following recent flood events.  Intense and localised rainfall, when falling on already saturated ground, can very quickly inundate lochs and drainage channels, affecting low-lying sections of roads.  These events seen to be occurring more frequently.

“It is important that we all do all that we can to mitigate the impacts of these weather events, and this includes all landowners and responsible organisations, such as the Comhairle, SEPA and Scottish Government, working together to ensure that the existing drainage systems are operating as efficiently as possible.  There may still be times when the drainage infrastructure quite simply can’t cope and under these circumstances a proportionate and coordinated response will be required, potentially with the assistance of emergency services.  People should not put themselves at risk by attempting to cross flooded roads where the depth of water or road edge location are unknown.”

Fire crew shortages

The Scottish Fire & Rescue Service submitted its quarterly performance report to the Comhairle’s Community Safety Board in November, setting out the continued challenges the Service faces in maintaining adequate fire cover for the islands.

The Report details that the Uist service was running 15 short of the full complement of firefighters, compromising service availability across Uist’s four fire stations. The staffing shortfall meant that in the period July to September this year, Lochboisdale, Lochmaddy and Bayhead stations were without day time cover for around 25% of the time, with a similar picture for overnight cover in Lochboisdale and a reduced night time service in Lochmaddy.

The Report to the Community Safety Board states: “Recruitment and retention still remains a significant challenge across the Isles. These challenges vary depending on the location and size of the communities where our fire stations are located, the nature of full time employment undertaken and the flexibility and willingness of local employers to release staff for CPD training an emergency calls.

The Report also notes that: “HIAL personnel and appliance are now available to respond to emergencies out with the curtilage of the airport on both Barra and Benbecula. This demonstration of effective partnership working and mutual aid is being identified as a possible blueprint for other remote/rural areas in Scotland.”

Area Commander Iain Macleod, SFRS Local Senior Officer for Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland said: “We always maintain fire cover. At no point is there no cover for any area in Scotland. The nearest available appliance is mobilised to an incident to ensure every emergency is attended. This can involve the strategic movement of appliances and individual personnel from other stations within the area if required.

“In North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist we have approximately 40 Firefighters across four fire stations – these local, committed and dedicated firefighters have the flexibility to combine fire and rescue commitment to their communities with their everyday lives; that flexibility means we have to also have arrangements in place to monitor and maintain fire and rescue provision for all incidents, utilising, for example, our neighbouring stations to combine crews to allow appliances to attend incidents or deploying full time personnel to specific locations where needed.”

The Report to the Comhairle comes as the Fire Brigades Union prepares to ballot for strike action.

Highlands & Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said: “To see a large proportion of the Highlands and Islands not covered by Firefighter cover is terrifying. Rural communities feel isolated enough and this is a further example of urban approaches not working in rural areas and I wish to see it addressed urgently.”

Going forward together

The first time I ever visited South Uist two things above all else struck me. The first was the stunning natural beauty that surrounds us wherever we look. I couldn’t wait to return on holiday after that first visit before being lucky enough to move here to work for Stòras Uibhist, but this feeling of sheer joyous wonder at the landscape and the wildlife has never left me. Like everyone, daily life is busy, and things get in the way, but I always make a little time each day to stop and appreciate just how lucky I am. Samuel Johnson said: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Absolute nonsense of course but replace ‘London’ with ‘Uist’ and perhaps he might have been on to something.

The second thing that struck me on that first visit was that the whole island I was visiting is owned by the community. It’s difficult to put into words just what an incredible thing I found that to be. The community, not any one individual, owns the very land that they live and work on. Even now, having lived here for three years, I still find this remarkable. To an Englishman whose idea of ‘community ownership’ is a council-managed park with a duck pond and kiddies’ playground, I was absolutely blown away by the fact. And I still am.

But what does community ownership actually mean? What benefits does it bring, and what responsibilities does it mean for those of us who live here? As Chairperson of Community Land Outer Hebrides, I have spent a lot of time this year talking to other community land-owning groups in Lewis and Harris. Over 75% of all land in the Outer Hebrides is now community-owned, which is an amazing figure. One of the things that we all have in common is a desire to help our communities, whether they are in Ness or Eriskay. There are a huge variety of projects underway, from community-led housing developments to cafes and from community dancing lessons to large-scale economic regeneration plans.

I’m not a politician but it is obvious that government funding is going to reduce over the next few years. Whether we like it or not, this will most likely mean less money for the Comhairle and less for organisations like Highlands & Islands Enterprise, who play such an important role in supporting business development. So that, in turn, means Stòras Uibhist is going to have an even greater role in supporting the community, helping to develop businesses, creating jobs, helping our community to find affordable homes and more.

The Articles of Association that govern Stòras set out the purpose of the company and are clear that the purpose of the buyout was not simply to own the land, but to use that ownership to bring benefit to the community. To quote directly:‘The company is established to benefit the community by the promotion, for the public benefit, of rural regeneration’.

There are three major projects that we are currently developing at Stòras. Firstly, there is a real shortage of affordable housing across the estate. This is one of the reasons for declining population numbers and means it can be difficult, if not impossible, for employers to recruit staff. We are working with our partners at Rural Housing Scotland to develop our Smart Clachan project. The first development location will be on community-owned land at Rubha Bhuailt. These houses will be available to buy on a shared-equity basis, allowing young people and families to own their own home. It’s been a slow and sometimes torturous process, but we will continue to push, persuade and cajole the relevant funders and decision makers until we get the houses built.

Secondly, we are working on a project to build a community food production facility (what’s come to be known as a Food Hub). We have an abundance of great produce across Uist, but it’s not always easy for local producers to get their produce to market and it’s not always easy for those of us living here to buy it. The facility we’re planning will create units for producers to rent and space and opportunity for food producers to sell their produce. It will help with food resilience, cut down on food miles and make it much easier to put Uist produce on our plates.

The third major project is a major strategic visioning plan for Lochboisdale. In partnership with the Comhairle and HIE we are currently working on ideas that will focus on creating jobs and a better environment for those living, working and visiting Lochboisdale. Community engagement has been at the heart of the project and our Engagement Officer has spoken to many groups, businesses and individuals to get their feedback and ideas. You will be able to see further details of the plans on Sunday 4th December as part of the Lochboisdale Christmas market.

It might be a cliché that Rome wasn’t built in day but it’s also true. Stòras Uibhist has already achieved so much. Since the buyout, our community has transformed the economic landscape of where we live. The Loch Carnan windfarm has helped secure the financial future of the organisation and the causeway and development of Gasaigh has created not only a thriving marina but has opened up deep water access and the potential for large scale development alongside the new ferry terminal. Many other projects, large and small, have been delivered. So far, so good, but we must keep this momentum going, keep pushing ever more ambitiously. Everyone within the organisation, staff and directors alike, is ambitious and motivated and determined to continue to drive things forward. The work is never done and never will be.

A community-owned company cannot function without the support of the community it represents. That means every one of us has a responsibility to ‘do our bit’. The great privilege of land ownership also brings responsibilities. In addition to our development plans, Stòras has an obligation to manage the estate and its assets to the best of our ability. The income from the turbines and the other parts of the business can only do so much and budgets can only be spent once. Our directors must decide how this is done and decide on the priorities for the organisation. Not everyone will agree with those decisions but that’s the great thing about community ownership…everyone has the opportunity to get involved and to have their say.

Next year there will be four vacancies to join the board of Stòras and while it might seem a long way in the future, I really hope that some of you reading this will think about putting yourselves forward and bringing your skills and knowledge to help what is an important organisation and a key part of life in this beautiful place I fell in love with.

Cllr Mustapha Hocine – Elected member for Uibhist a Tuath, VC Education, Sport and Children’s Services Committee

This winter we need to reflect on the cost-of-living crisis and its impact on children’s lifestyles, wellbeing and ultimately, their human rights.

The huge increase in energy prices, rampant inflation and the subsequent general increase in the price of the most basic commodities will undoubtedly have very negative consequences on families’ budgets and living standards this winter. Without some sort of additional and urgent intervention from the government to protect the most vulnerable families, this looming crisis will have a damaging effect on children.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) enshrines the basic and universal human rights every child should have; the cost-of-living crisis we are currently experiencing threatens to infringe on these rights. The Convention states that all children have the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to an education and the right to have a happy life. If urgent action is not taken to support these families during this crisis, we will see more families falling well below the poverty line and more children having their education, standard of living and social lives affected.

In the recently published Living Without a Lifeline Report, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) carried out a survey of 260 single parents. The survey revealed that 97.9% of participants felt the impact of rising costs, while 61.1% were finding it either extremely difficult to afford or could no longer afford electricity, and 43.7% said they were struggling to always buy adequate food for their families. A single parent commented:

“I just feel that I’m totally on my own financially. We can’t claim free school meals or any grants because I’m not on benefits. Outgoings are increasing, I am as frugal as I can be, my pay was frozen for 3 years and now I have a 2% cost of living increase; better than nothing! Feel forgotten about. I cut my own hair, I skip meals, I scrimp on heating etc so I can pay the mortgage etc. There is no support for us from anyone.”

The most shocking thing about this survey is that 78% of the participants were in work.

A child’s standard of living is heavily tied not only to their education but to their social development. A survey conducted by the teachers’ union NASUWT shows that teachers in Scotland are regularly seeing how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting their pupils. 65% of NASUWT members stated that a rising number of children and young people were coming to school hungry, while 58% stated that more pupils did not have the equipment they needed for their lessons and 55% said that more of their pupils’ families were unable to afford school uniforms. While the UNCRC states that every child has the right to an education, it is my opinion that every child should also have the right to get the most of out of their education. If a child is hungry, their concentration is affected. Without extra packages of support, this cost-of-living crisis could see children from the most vulnerable families falling behind in their education as a direct result of the decline of living standards.

Mike Corbett, NASUWT National Official Scotland, said:

“There can be little doubt that the cost-of-living crisis is harming pupils’ education, learning and development. It is outrageous that we should be seeing more and more families who are struggling or unable to feed, clothe or keep a roof over their children’s heads. The financial worry and anxiety that many parents are already experiencing is also being felt by children and is likely to have a negative impact on their education. It’s vital that schools and wider children’s services are funded to provide more by way of support, advice and counselling for children, parents and carers who are struggling. An immediate step forward would be for the Scottish Government to commit to the introduction of universal free school meals for all pupils.”

The anxiety experienced by parents during this cost-of-living crisis will also very likely have a negative impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. Increased anxiety levels and poor mental health not only affect a child’s ability to concentrate in school but can also have a lasting effect on their social development.

Rising costs of food and energy are not the only financial headache families will face this winter. The difficulty in meeting the demands to pay for uniform, school trips, and the many other requirements that daily school life brings such as sponsored events, book fairs, Red Nose Day etc, can be an added anxiety for families who are already struggling. Children who are unable to participate in these social events are at risk of being socially excluded and bullied, which in turn could lead to low levels of self esteem and poor mental health. If children who are already struggling with anxiety are made to feel left out and different from their peers due to the not been able to afford a school trip for example, this could have devastating consequences.

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition has said that rising prices are replacing the Covid pandemic as the main cause of children and young people’s mental health problems, reporting that in the first three months of last year, 7,902 children and young people were referred to mental health services for treatment, compared to 9,672 this year – a 22.4% increase.

The current cost-of-living crisis affects almost everyone in Scotland. None more so than children already living in the grip of poverty. This is the time usually, when parents need to buy their children winter clothing and save for Christmas presents, however, the reality is that a lot of families will not be able to provide their children with many of the things they need.

A good and happy society is generally judged by the way it looks after its most vulnerable people, especially during difficult times. We have a collective responsibility to support and protect the children in our community from the long and lasting damage this crisis can inflict on them; we should do all we can to ensure they have a safe and happy childhood and help them develop and achieve their full potential, because the children are our future and the future of these Islands.

Scottish Government Wildlife Bill to ban all muirburning on peatland

New proposals put forward by Scottish Government will introduce a ban on all muirburning on peatland and require a licence for every muirburn carried out on other types of land. The ban will see the majority of Uist’s burns rendered illegal.

The proposals are part of a new Wildlife Management (Grouse) Bill, due to be published in the 2022/23 parliamentary session and out for consultation until until 15th December.

The new Bill is based on the findings of an independent review of grouse moor management, known as the Werrity Report, and covers a range of measures including the introduction of new licensing requirements for grouse shooting and restrictions on snaring and trapping.

The current Muirburn Code sets out a range of stipulations about how and when land can be burned, prohibiting burns outside the agreed 1 October to 15 April season, restricting burns on certain areas, for example Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and encouraging those planning muirburns to alert the relevant landowners in advance. The Code is accompanied by common sense safety guidance, including the advice that burns should not be started between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise or within 30m of a public road and that fires should not be left unattended.

While the current Code advises against burning on peatland, there is currently no legal prohibition against it, unless on SSSIs.

The new legislation sets out a much more stringent approach, putting in place a statutory ban on all muirburning on peatland (currently defined as peat of a depth of 40cm or more) unless it is part of an approved habitat restoration programme, to protect public safety or for the purpose of research. The legislation will also introduce the requirement for a licence to be obtained for burning on a limited range of permitted areas, such as dry heath.

The Consultation document states: “The impacts of burning on carbon release and sequestration on moorland are disputed and there is conflicting scientific evidence. However, given the importance of peatland to Scotland’s net zero target, we have taken the view that a precautionary approach is required until there is more consensus on the impacts of muirburn.

“Peatland restoration is a key part of the Scottish Government’s goal of achieving a net-zero Scotland by 2045 as peat soils cover almost a quarter of Scotland, about 1.7 million hectares, storing some 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of an estimated 140 years of Scotland’s emissions. If we continue to allow unregulated muirburn on peatland, the progress that has been made restoring Scotland’s peatlands could be negated by damage caused by muirburn.”

Scottish Crofting Federation Chair Donald Mackinnon said: “Muirburn is an important tool that crofters should continue to have available to them for the management of hill grazing….While it is not crofters that are the target of this proposed legislation, it is clear that crofters will be affected. SCF does not oppose the principal of licensing but any scheme must be proportionate to the activity being carried out, a one size fits all approach will not work. Licenses should be easily obtainable for those already following best practice. We need to understand more about the implications of the proposal to ban burning on deep peat, we recognise the climate impact of this activity but there may still be specific areas where this practice is appropriate and exceptions should be possible.” 

The Wildlife Management (Grouse) Bill consultation closes on December 15th.

Suspected Uist H5N1 cases waiting to be confirmed

The RSPB and NatureScot have confirmed that a number of dead and dying swans have been found in the Drimsdale area.

In accordance with current guidance, the birds were reported to Defra but delays in testing have held back confirmation of the suspected presence of Avian Influenza H5N1.

Local NatureScot staff are now being trained to allow them to carry out the required testing regime and it is hoped that confirmation of suspected cases will be a smoother, quicker process in future.

Members of the public are reminded not touch or pick up any dead or visibly sick birds and to report a single dead bird of prey, three dead gulls or wild waterfowl or five or more dead wild birds of any other species to the Defra helpline on 03459 33 55 77.

An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone is now in place across the UK, bringing additional regulations for all poultry keepers. The measures require all free ranging birds to be kept within fenced areas, with ponds, watercourses and areas of permanent standing water fenced off and all feeding and watering provision to be kept within enclosed areas to discourage wild birds.

Community estate plans on show

Sealladh na Beinne Mòire (SnBM) held its Annual General Meeting in Talla an Iochdair on the evening of 24th November. Around 50 members of the community braved the foul weather to attend the event, with a full contingent of Directors on hand to support CEO Darren Taylor and his team.

Mr Taylor presented an Operational Review of the business, talking through the SnBM accounts and setting out key issues of interest. The audited accounts posted for 2021 showed income totalling £2,840,455 and expenditure of £1,825,493, leaving a pre-tax/depreciation profit of £1,014,962, and net profit of £20,080.

A more detailed overview showed an uplift in income for most areas of the business, with golf, fishing and a combined Grogarry Lodge/sporting function all returning modest profits and Lochboisdale Harbour returning a loss of £107k. South Uist Renewable Energy Ltd reported a sharp fall in income from £2,375,000 in 2020 to £1,993,000 this year as a result of a marked reduction in wind and over 30 days of maintenance-related downtime.

The results of the recent helicopter deer count were presented, confirming 216 stags, 684 hinds and 198 calves, making a total 1,198 beasts. Cull targets for 2022/23 were listed as 255 in all, with 143 culled to date. Members were also presented with cull targets for the next six years, which the Company suggest would bring the total deer herd down to just over 600 by 2028.

The target herd size listed is considerably higher than previously stated and after the meeting, Am Pàipear asked why the figure had changed. The SnBM position was confirmed as: “We had previously settled on an optimal  herd number of around 450 and our cull targets for the coming years are heading that way. We would like to see the positive impact of our new zero tolerance policy of shooting all beasts to the west of the main road and within village boundaries on the east side of the estate. It may well be that if the deer are staying out of the way and not causing any damage that we can maintain a herd of around 600 without negative impacts.”

SnBM reported over £500k of external grant income, supporting two temporary posts and progressing a range of other projects.

Updates were provided on key projects, including the Smart Clachan housing development planned for Lochboisdale, the development of a local food production hub at Grogarry Steadings, and a ‘Strategic Visioning’ study to set out draft plans for Lochboisdale’s regeneration.

Details of £35,000 worth of community donations through 18 separate allocations were also detailed.
All 14 questions submitted by members ahead of the AGM were answered on the night and SnBM has confirmed these will be available to view on the Stòras website.

Questions asked during the meeting covered a broad range of subjects, including deer stocking plans, flooding impacts and the allocation of costs across sporting, gamekeeping and Grogarry Lodge functions.

When asked to set out their long term vision for Uist, the Directors cited the requirement to resolve the core issues Uist faces, including housing and ferry provision. The need to free up unused land to allow young people to croft and build homes was a common theme, as was the requirement to work together.

John Daniel Peteranna encouraged the Board to raise their sights to bigger, more aspirational projects, for example by pursuing the possibility of innovative new energy solutions.

Father Michael MacDonald urged the Board to look again at the radical drainage plans set out in the original business case for the community buyout of the Estate.

Of all discussions on the floor, only one comment elicited applause from the assembled audience when Iain Stephen Morrison stated his disappointment that no coherent vision for Uist had been set out by the Board. Mr Morrison said: “I think I’ve been to every AGM this organisation has held. Back in the beginning, there would be queues stretching out of the door, but tonight the room is half empty.” He continued: “I urge you to open up and bring the people with you. If you don’t, the price will be failure.”

Chair Mary Schmoller responded by reminding all members that the next AGM will be held next summer and that four Director posts would be open for election.

Call for mezzanine deck

A new Report published by the Harris Development Company has detailed £8.5m losses as a result of reduced ferry capacity over the summer months.

Harris Development Company Chair Kenny Macleod said that CalMac’s continued insistence that the mezzanine deck could only be in service on a limited number of sailings had cost the community of the Western Isles dearly.

Mr Macleod set out the details of the losses in a letter to Transport Minister Gilruth on November 11th, and told Am Pàipear that he had yet to receive any reply other that a notification of receipt.

The Report used CalMac’s own figures to show that almost 10,000 fewer vehicles travelled on the Uig triangle route in the period June to September 2022, compared to the same period in 2019.

Mr Macleod said: “Even if we take a three-year pre-Covid average and compare that to the 2022 figures, it shows 9382 fewer vehicles carried (9204 for cars only). These are huge reductions and are causing alarm in our communities. Putting costs onto these makes even more frightening reading.”

Mr Macleod continued: “We used an average contribution to our economy by cars of £1500 (average accommodation cost of £750 and a similar amount spent on food, excursions, craft products, etc). If we allow for around 2000 of the lost traffic to be local vehicles, then the cost would be in the region of £11.55m (7,700 x 1500). If we assume that the cars aren’t going to self-caterings but are instead using other accommodation types and staying for an average of three nights (accommodation £300, food 150, spend 250 = 700) the figure would be £5.39M.”

“Taking an average figure as the reality would be a mix of both, then the loss to the communities of Harris and Uist is just short of £8.5m. That is more than 10 times the cost that CalMac said they would incur for maintaining the service at pre-Covid level.

The Uig triangle report follows an earlier economic impact study by the Lochboisdale Ferry Impact Group, which detailed local business losses of £648,000 over a period of 14 days in May when the Lochboisdale/Mallaig ferry was out of service. The Group delivering the report said the assessment showed that for each day of cancelled sailings, Uist suffers a loss equivalent to almost 2.5x a full year’s average salary on Uist (£46,285 a day).

A spokesperson for CalMac said: “We can’t always deploy the mezzanine decks due to the length of time it takes – it could be that if they were deployed, a sailing may be delayed or it might breach the strict rules governing hours of rest for crew.”

CalMac’s website has the following statement: “As demand increases across our services it has become increasingly difficult to continue to deploy mezzanine decks on an increasing number of sailings, whilst at the same time keeping to the published timetable.  We know that communities want us to provide as much capacity on vessels as possible, by deploying mezzanine decks on as many sailings as possible.  We have listened to their feedback and designed a timetable that allows us to deploy mezzanine decks on as many sailings as we can but allows enough time for the vessel to ensure they can operate to the published timetable.”