Local democracy matters
In my roles as Chief Executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Returning Officer for na h-Eileanan an Iar and Convener of the Electoral Management Board, I have spent many days supporting the delivery of the democratic process and encouraging people to think about not just participating in it as voters but also considering being a candidate for election, at whatever level: Community Council, Local Government, Holyrood or Westminster. A Brussels or Strasbourg option is now off the table. The right to engage with politics was hard- won, is the envy of many elsewhere in the world and should not be taken for granted.
Engaging with local government, elected community organisations and groups run for the benefit of their local area is among the best ways of understanding, addressing, and developing solutions to the complex challenges faced by individuals living in the Western Isles. It is also among the best ways to develop and grow the strengths of a community; there always needs to be a healthy balance between addressing needs and identifying and taking advantage of opportunities. It is often Local Government and elected organisations which can and will make the biggest difference at a local level, and when that happens, that is community empowerment in action.
Listening, sharing views and working in partnership towards agreed outcomes are all means of sustaining Uist as a fantastic place to live, work and learn.
Over the next month individuals in Uist will have the opportunity to have a say on who represents them at the most local level during the elections for Community Councils and the Board of Directors of Stòras Uibhist. I hope that there will be high levels of engagement in both of these elections. Local Government Elections in Uist are always contested, often by many candidates, and Uist is well represented in positions of leadership within the Comhairle: the Council Leader is Paul Steele from South Uist, Uisdean Robertson leads for us on Transport and Infrastructure and every one of the Uist councillors is an office bearer within other Committees and Boards.
It has been heartening to see the level of political discourse and activity in Uist over the last number of months, arising of course from difficult circumstances, to put it mildly, particularly on the transport front. I hope that this community action will transfer to interest and participation in these elections.
In June we saw hundreds march in protest over the failures of the CalMac ferry service, a showing of mass political engagement that is rarely seen outside of the UK’s major cities.
Individuals in Uist have shown an unwillingness to sit back and accept the levels of service offered and the decision- making structures which have resolved what the levels of service should be. There is real power in presenting a well- reasoned and thought-out case and demonstrating grassroots local political campaigning.
For some though, there may be question marks over why standing for Community Council election is a good outlet for this political interest.
First of all, it’s important to define what exactly a Community Council does. Scottish Community Councils define a Community Council as being:
“A voluntary organisation set up by statute by the Local Authority and run by local residents to act on behalf of its area. As the most local tier of elected representation, Community Councils play an important role in local democracy.”
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar cannot – and does not want to – run services with a one size fits all approach and already adapts delivery to match the specific needs of local areas, as far as we can. The role of the Community Councils alongside elected members is to establish and communicate the local needs and priorities of their own area.
The next question is perhaps: who should become involved in Community Councils?
Again looking at the Scottish Community Council’s definitions:
“Community Councils are comprised of people who care about their community and want to make it a better place to live.”
This is key, for our Community Councils to function effectively they must be comprised of people who genuinely care about their local area.
Community Councils have a key role to play in gathering information from the local community and campaigning for positive change in their area. Whether it is to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Scottish Government, UK Government or public or private companies it is vital that people living in local areas have opportunities to express their views on the services they access and to outline their own priorities.
Uist, like the rest of the Western Isles, currently faces an array of opportunities as well as some complex issues which are unhelpful to sustainability and arguably now more than ever Uist needs strong representative voices.
Access to reliable transport links has become a critical challenge and an area of continued disruption while the delayed roll-out of fast broadband connections further impacts on connectivity to the mainland. These are practical issues that require a solution that works for the people of Uist.
It is important that these challenges are acknowledged and made a priority. However, the next few years also promise to present some exciting opportunities for employment and growth that give plenty of reasons for optimism and excitement.
For us to be best placed to make the most of these opportunities and tackle these challenges it is important that we have informed individuals who care about their local area in positions where they can represent them.
For Uist to thrive the essentials of any sound economy are required: jobs and housing.
On this topic there are grounds for optimism: the employment of graduates in Uist and Eriskay through Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s Graduate Scheme, the promise of employment opportunities through the Spaceport 1 project and the growth of local businesses thanks to Business Gateway investment have all contributed much needed youth employment opportunities.
Community owned company Stòras Uibhist has recruited an Estate Management Apprentice following engagement with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Employability Team. One of a number of apprentices currently employed in Uist.
Since the community buyout of South Uist in 2006 Stòras Uibhist has worked to create opportunities such as this for residents while managing the natural environment of the area.
Community land ownership should place the interests of the local community at the heart of decision making and presents opportunities for the drawing of funding to directly benefit people living in an area.
Community ownership also gives an opportunity for people to have a direct voice over the strategy and outcomes for their area. This month’s democratic election of Stòras Uibhist directors is an example of this.
I have been heartened to see the number of candidates for the Directorship election and encourage all eligible voters to engage with the process.
Charity says corncrake warnings ignored
RSPB Scotland has expressed its frustration that conditions it set out to protect birds during the most sensitive part of the breeding season were not attached to the approval of the Spaceport development at Scolpaig, in North Uist.
Local staff say they feel let down by the process and are calling on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to refuse licensing for launches during the critical periods of May and June.
RSPB Scotland says that Scolpaig is an important breeding ground for rare and threatened bird species such as the Corncrake, Greenland Barnacle Goose and Ringed Plover. The charity expressed particular concern about noise and said the conditions it had set out in its response to the planning application would have prevented significant negative impacts.
The proposed mitigation plan issued alongside the development proposals included some measures to reduce disturbance from noise and activity, with efforts made to provide suitable habitat for breeding further away from where rockets will be launched.
RSPB Scotland said that while it welcomed these mitigations, it had requested that, should the application be approved, a condition was added preventing launches during the most sensitive part of the bird breeding season.
An RSPB spokesperson said: “The Comhairle chose not to recommend such a condition to restrict launch times. Instead, in their committee report, they said that operators who wish to launch during the bird breeding season will be required to justify potential impacts through a dedicated Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE), which would form part of their launch licensing requirements. This requirement, however, does not seem to be specified in any planning condition so it is unclear how this will be carried out.”
RSPB Outer Hebrides Island Manager Tom Churchyard added: “It is disappointing that the commercial interests of this development have been placed ahead of the environment at the most sensitive times of year and the Comhairle have failed to include an Assessment of Environmental Effects within their licensing requirements. This leaves the possibility that unacceptable disturbance will be allowed to take place to some of our most protected breeding bird species at the most sensitive time of year. We would urge the Comhairle to refuse licensing for launches during May and June.”
In response to the RSPB’s statement, the Comhairle said:
“The development of the North Uist Spaceport is subject to a number of regulatory regimes of which Planning is only one. The licencing of the Spaceport operations is one regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and is a separate mechanism to the planning process. The Planning system should not duplicate other control regimes such as licencing.
“The planning assessment considered in some detail the potential impact of the development on birds, including breeding birds, and had due regard for the comments of the RSPB and others.The planning authority is satisfied that for the purposes of planning the conditions seeking provision of a Breeding Bird Protection Plans and a Habitat and Amenity Management Plan are sufficient, relevant to the development permitted and reasonable in all respects.
“The CAA as the consenting authority for a Spaceport licence application will consider an Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE) that the applicant must provide as a part of the licence application for the Spaceport. The CAA would apply licence conditions, including any related to launches during the bird breeding season, as it deems appropriate.”
The campaign group Friends of Scolpaig has confirmed that it will be lodging a petition to the Scottish Parliament and submitting an open letter to Scottish Government and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Calls grow for new PSO on Benbecula route
The Comhairle has called for a new Public Service Obligation to protect Uist’s air service following Loganair’s timetable reduction.
Last month, Loganair reduced its Benbecula-Glasgow timetable to just one flight a day, saying it was forced to reduce the service as a result of delays in the delivery of new planes.
The new timetable caused particular concern for island residents as it no longer allows for a Friday afternoon departure and a Monday morning return, shuttingdowntheopportunity of a weekend getaway.
The reduced timetable has again raised the issue of the Public Service Obligation (PSO), with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar saying that without the service level agreements of a PSO in place, the Glasgow- Benbecula service is vulnerable, with no guarantee that flights will operate year-round at a time that suits the islands and at a fare they can afford.
North Uist Councillor and HITRANS Chair Uisdean Robertson said the feedback from his constituents has been clear:
“I have received a significant volume of correspondence from people concerned at the early introduction of the winter timetable on the route to Benbecula. It was very notable that vast majority of those writing to me on this issue were our younger people and those whose business travel is negatively impacted by the early reduction in service.
“Many have underlined how this decision makes them reconsider the viability of their continuing to live in Uist. Air services are an important lifeline for many of us and if we cannot rely on receiving a servicethat meets the needs of the community through the current model of commercial provision, we need Government to step in and put in place a service that does. If the required service is not being delivered commercially, this can only be achieved by introducing the PSO model that works so well for Barra and Tiree.”
A spokesperson for Loganair refuted claims that the service was not commercially viable, saying:
“Assumptions that Benbecula-Glasgow is a loss- making service are unfounded and wide of the mark.”
The PSO in place to support the Barra – Glasgow service allows for a current ticket prices of £54 to £81 one way, depending on time of booking and direction of travel. The same booking for the Benbecula – Glasgow service costs between two and five times that price, with the most expensive one way flight priced at £386.
Even with four weeks notice, it is still cheaper to travel the 3,500 miles between London and New York than it is to to cross the 158 miles between Benbecula and Glasgow.
The new Scottish Government – Loganair PSO contract commences at the end of October and will introduce a £91 ‘residents fare’ on the Barra – Glasgow service, applicable only to those living on Barra. Transport Scotland says that fares for all other passengers, including Uist residents, will be a commercial decision for the operator. Concerns have been raised that Uist residents and their visiting family members who choose to fly this cheaper route may well now face a hefty price rise in line with Benbecula fares.
Lognair has confirmed that the sale of the company is proceeding as expected and that an update will be provided in due course.
Public consultation launched on new route prioritisation plans
CalMac is carrying out a public consultation on proposed changes to its controversial Route Prioritisation Framework.
The Route Prioritisation Framework informs CalMac’s decision making around service cancellations and has been blamed for the month-long cancellation of the Lochboisdale service in June this year. CalMac had been under significant pressure to re-think its route mitigation planning following a heated meeting in South End Hall that same month.
CalMac launched the consultation with a statement saying:
“The proposals, developed in conjunction with representatives from Transport Scotland and the Ferries Community Board, would see several changes, including:
• More importance being placed on islands residents and commercial vehicles
• More priority given to routes with higher levels of disruption • An aim to limit disruption to any one route for a period of approximately one week at a time • Spread available vessels across one-two routes, rather than impact single communities.”
Uisdean Robertson, North Uist Councillor and Chair of HITRANS said the proposals were a step in the right direction:
“The new proposals seem to set out a fairer approach to managing the service in the event of vessel outages and should at least avoid the situation we faced in South Uist earlier this summer, where one community was disproportionately targeted.
“In terms of equity, this new approach is an improvement but until new vessels can be brought into service, we will have to accept that a greater number of routes will be affected as CalMac shares the impacts across the network.”
The new approach would be based on the vehicles carried in the previous season, weighted in favour of island residents (50%), then commercial vehicles (40%) and finally leisure vehicles (10%), and also would factor in the total percentage of sailings disrupted and cancelled against the original timetable for previous season.
The new proposals would see the land-accessible Ardrossan- Campbeltown and Mallaig-Armadale routes as first hit options when a vessel cascade is needed, and would be based on the core principle that impact on any single route would be limited to one week at a time.
CalMac says that the proposed changes are likely to mean more customers are impacted by disruptions than previously, including island residents and commercial customers and that timetables could be more complicated and change more frequently.
The consultation is available on the CalMac website and will remain open until midnight on 24th September.
MP vows to stay on
Angus McNeil’s growing rift with the SNP came to a head last month with his formal expulsion from the party he has served for more than 20 years.
Under UK Parliamentary rules, by-elections are triggered when a candidate resigns or dies, is declared bankrupt, is convicted of a serious criminal offence or takes a seat in the House of Lords; an MP’s change of political party does not automatically trigger a by-election.
Mr MacNeil no longer represents the party under which he was elected but has said he will continue in post as an independent representative, adding that he hoped to rejoin the SNP in time to stand on their ticket at the next election.
Mr MacNeil told Am Pàipear:
“There are many good people in the SNP and tremendous activists in all the islands. Following my suspension, I decided not to rejoin the SNP Westminster Group however I did keep my rank and file SNP membership but an SNP committee then decided to expel me. Perhaps in time to come wiser heads will prevail. What needs to happen is not expelling SNP members but focusing on independence and using elections which is the only option as referendums are blocked.
“The change in status has not changed my working life in Westminster. Despite the hype surrounding this, the reality is actually quite dull and boring and it makes no difference whatsoever. My constituents will notice no difference.”
Asked if, by leaving the SNP fold, he had reduced his influence on Scottish Government policy,Mr MacNeil said:
“I have always been quite free of party lines and spoke about things as I saw them. The sway on issues such as keeping airt raffic control jobs at Benbecula a number of years ago or against the HPMAs today is down to the force of the argument, not the status you have within a party.”
Mr MacNeil refuted claims that his departure would offer an opportunity to Labour:
“I have not left an open door for Labour in the Western Isles. Labour is more deeply unattractive as they adopt more and more Conservative policies.
“My move has made people talk more about independence; more and more people are understanding that we need independence and it is time that those in the highest levels of the SNP grasp that urgency.”
Angus MacNeil had been one of the SNP’s longest serving MPs and one of Scotland’s highest profile UK Parliamentarians. Less than a year after taking up his post in Westminster, he came to prominence calling for House of Lords reform, helping expose the Cash for Peerages scandal of Tony Blair’s Government. In 2007 and 2016, his extra-marital romantic exploits were exposed in the tabloid press and in May 2022, he faced a three month ban and a £1500 fine for dangerous driving, following a road traffic collision in Barra two years before.
With the next general election not far away, Mr MacNeil’s change of status has left this constituency in an interesting position.
The Western Isles has elected only three candidates in the last 53 years, each of them serving for a term of 17-18 years; Donald Stewart, SNP, 1970-1987, Calum, MacDonald, Labour, 1987 – 2005 and Angus MacNeil, SNP 2005-present.
As Am Pàipear went to print, the only candidate to confirm a challenge to Mr MacNeil is Lewis- based journalist Torcuil Crichton, who is standing and actively campaigning for the Labour Party. The SNP, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have all confirmed that they will be selecting and then fielding candidates but have yet to reveal names; the Scottish Christian Party and the Scottish Green Party were not ready to confirm their position.
£3m and counting: Uist pays the price of CalMac service failures
The pressure group set up to lobby for improved ferry reliability has published a second economic impact assessment of the financial implications of disrupted services.
The South Uist Business Impact Group commissioned the report from Stirling University based MKA Economics, with support form Stòras Uibhist.
The new Economic Assessment looks at the period 30th March to 30th June this year, tracking the financial losses associated with ferry cancellations and disruptions during that critical three month period.
The study took the form of an online survey emailed to 307 local companies from Berneray to Eriskay, with just under half returning a response. Of those responding, all confirmed they were aware of the ferry service being out of action, and 90% stated that their business had suffered as a direct result of that service loss. The report says that the figures confirm ‘the critical importance of the ferry service, and the significant detrimental effects of its inactivity on local businesses’.
The report sets out the startling losses endured by Uist businesses as a result of ferry failures:
• £2.6million in lost turnover
• 1,005 person days lost
• £80,850 of additional cost incurred
Taken together with the losses associated with ferry failures in 2022, the report concludes a demonstrable total loss in the region of £3m.
Almost all those responding concluded that a Plan B must be in place to ensure their businesses did not suffer significant losses and business threats as result of any future ferry outage. Almost three-quarters felt it was a ‘very good idea’ that multiple, smaller ferries were in operation to ensure no loss of service in the future.
The report concludes with a call to action:
“Consideration of how businesses should be recompensed and supported through grant aid or other financial measures to alleviate the losses to their business should be brought forward. This could be direct to business, a fund for businesses, or money targeted towards improved ferry service(s).”
Last month a Freedom of Information request submitted by Scottish Labour revealed that non-weather related CalMac cancellations had more than trebled, with over 40,000 cancellations since 2018.
New concerns raised over patient travel provision
In its June issue, Am Pàipear shared concerns expressed by patient bodies and third sector organisations that the gap between travel costs incurred and reimbursement payments made by NHSWI was leaving many patients out of pocket and having a detrimental effect on their health and wellbeing.
The article prompted a number of readers to get in touch with Am Pàipear to raise awareness of another issue negatively affected patients travelling to off-island medical appointments: the funding of escorted travel.
The NHSWI Travel Policy details the criteria for allowing funded, patient escorts: “In general, a travel escort will only be provided by NHS Western Isles if the patient has a significant clinical condition that makes independent travel impossible.”
Prior to 2018, requests for funded escorts were approved by the patient’s GP; the new Travel Policy places that responsibility with the Stornoway-based NHS Western Isles Medical Director.
Patients say that the change has resulted in fewer escort approvals, leaving many vulnerable patients with a difficult choice; to face the stress of travelling alone or to pay the additional travel costs of an escort themselves. Those without adequate funds face a starker choice still: either travel alone or don’t travel at all.
As one patient told us: “It’s expensive to be poorly in Uist and Barra and illness doesn’t single out the wealthy.”
Steven MacDonald, originally from North Uist and now living in Wester Ross, spoke to Am Pàipear of the trauma his family faced when his heavily pregnant wife Sophie became ill while on a visit home last year:
“At 5pm we phoned NHS 24 as Sophie wasn’t feeling great and were asked to head to the hospital. Her blood pressure was quite high, so the doctor was concerned.
“Arrangements were made to fly us to Raigmore and at this point, I was told I would not be allowed to be her escort. They were willing to fly my heavily pregnant wife on her own to Inverness. Eventually, at 10pm, we were told we were being flown out to Aberdeen of all places. We didn’t arrive until 1am and the paramedic on board told us he tried to have us routed to Glasgow, but this was against the doctor’s wishes.”
After intense discussion, Steven was finally granted permission to travel with Sophie, but the family have still to receive any reimbursement for the cost of Stephen’s travel:
“We submitted claim after claim with all appropriate receipts and to this day have never got our money back.”
Many of the other people Am Pàipear spoke to wanted to share their experiences with readers, but asked to remain anonymous. They spoke of the financial and emotional impacts of being refused funded escort support.
An older woman told of her lost independence following a serious fall: “I used to do everything myself but since the fall, I can’t get about on my own and I’ve lost my confidence.” Despite mobility issues and crippling anxiety, she has been refused an escort, and told Am Pàipear that she is now considering cancelling her appointment: “I just don’t think I can face going alone.”
Another woman who regularly travels to the mainland for cancer treatment described the situation as ‘an inequity of the service’:
“If you live in Glasgow and are going to the sort of appointment where you could potentially get bad news, you would have someone with you. That’s not an option here in the islands and you would be required to travel home alone. I have seen people on the plane visibly upset after receiving bad news at an appointment.”One cancer patient with addiction issues was refused an escort, despite letters of support from the GP, his support worker and the MacMillan nurse: “Had it not been for a Cancer Care Forum paying for an escort to travel with him, he would not have attended hisscan.”
Another woman, who regularly travels to the mainland for specialist breast screening appointments, highlighted the prohibitive cost of patient travel: “A standard room with no breakfast cost me £192.00 and I waited approximately four weeks for reimbursement. If I couldn’t afford that, I would have cancelled my appointment, which some have unfortunately had to do.”
The sentiments shared with Am Pàipear echo the responses to a survey developed by retired nurse and North Uist Community Council member Effie Rodgers, and the late Flora MacDonald, Ahmore. The survey detailed the views of 11 local cancer patients highlighting the financial hardship and emotional strain of travel to and from off island appointments. The survey is expected to be rolled out to the wider patient community in due course.
Responding to the concerns raised, an NHS Western Isles spokesperson said:
“It is important to stress that, where escorts are clinically required, they are approved in line with our policy. However, we must ensure that the criteria are applied in a fair way. This will ensure that those patients who require an escort will continue to receive financial assistance, but it will also mean that those who do not meet the criteria will not receive NHS funding for an escort. We understand and acknowledge that in some cases, this will be disappointing. However, there is a limited budget for patient travel, which is under significant pressure, and we must ensure that the money available is spent appropriately.”
The NHS Travel Policy is due for review this month.
New report highlights inequality for island shoppers
Tagsa Uibhist has published a new report calling for ‘immediate and progressive action by national and regional authorities to address the difficulties of food insecurity in Uist and Barra’.
The Our Right to Food Report sets out the findings of a study Tagsa carried out earlier this year in partnership with Nourish Scotland looking at the affordability and accessibility of basic fruit and vegetable items in Uist and Barra.
The research findings evidence that people living in the Southern Isles are disproportionately more disadvantaged in terms of affording and gaining access to basic fruit and vegetables.
Alex Mackenzie, Tagsa Uibhist’s Local Food Development Manager, explained how the study was carried out:
“Our Community Researchers set out to find a mixture of fruits and vegetables from an example weekly shopping list for a family of five. The list comprised of 17 basic fruit and vegetable items including fresh produce, frozen goods and pantry items, providing the basis for a ‘right to food’ metric in terms of the affordability of a healthy diet.
“Less than half of the shopping list items were easily accessible and furthermore the total basket cost was 28% more expensive than a Tesco Online shop.”
The Report shows that: “Rather than paying £1.10 for a 1kg bag of mixed vegetables (Tesco Online) Islanders were on average paying £2.87 and sometimes paying out £4.67 for frozen mixed vegetables. This same trend was found against other food items with pasta sauce equating to 233% more than a Tesco equivalent; paying £2.83 for a 500g jar of pasta sauce compared with £0.85 for a Tesco product.”
Alex says that the Uist findings were in stark contrast to other rural mainland communities and evidenced worrying trends on the dietary inequalities for island communities.
The Report provides interesting detail on how the Co-Op classifies its island shops by size and revenue – convenience store, supermarket or superstore. Of the four Co-Op shops within the survey area, two are classified as ‘convenience stores’ and as a result, shelf space is prioritised for branded, convenience food such as pizza and ice cream, with less space allocated to fresh, own-branded or value range produce.
“Larger retailers need to recognise that a convenience store classification which gives a heavier weighting to convenience foods and top branded goods is not serving our island communities well.
“All our Island shop staff are trying to ease the burden of the cost of living crisis but in some cases are restricted to centralised ordering and buying systems which don’t make any concessions for Island life.”
In terms of availability of faired better, with autonomy over their ordering requirements and the ability to stock local produce: “Co-op stores need agreement from headquarters to stock local produce and there would be a requirement for the local producer to be operating at a sufficient scale to provide their produce throughout all the Co-op Scottish stores which acts as a deterrent for small scale local producers.”
Our Right to Food follows the publication earlier this year of Tagsa’s Small is Beautiful Report, which set out the opportunities for growing Uist’s sustainable food options.This latest study continues that theme, saying:
“There is huge potential to increase the amount of local food available to the local community and provide horticultural training to encourage people to grow locally.”
The Report concludes with a clear call to action:
“There is a strong call by our community researchers for immediate and progressive action by national and regional authorities to address the difficulties of food insecurity in Uist and Barra. Food supply chains are broken, and our findings show that the health of islanders is compromised by limited access to adequate, nutritious, and affordable food, particularly during the winter months.”
Long waiting lists and high costs put childcare out of reach of parents
‘We are being failed by a lack of nursery provision.’ This is the message from parents on North Uist who have been contending with long waiting lists and high costs for childcare.
“It’s a national picture with local implications,” Ceiteag of Cothrom Òg in South Uist told Am Pàipear. Cothrom held a meeting at the beginning of the year with the Social Justice and Social Security Committee of the Scottish Government to discuss difficulties in accessing childcare on Uist.
“Without housing, childcare, employment and good transport links we can’t encourage people to remain or come and stay here. It’s all linked with the economic aspect,” said Ceiteag.
Concerns have, again, been raised in the six months since that meeting. Am Pàipear was approached by several worried parents in North Uist who are having to make the difficult decision between returning to work and relying on the kindness of family and friends to provide childcare or giving up on work altogether until their child can get a space in nursery or go to school.
At the moment funding is only available for 30 hours per week of childcare, beginning the term after the child turns three; funding is not available for children under three years of age.
Kirsty MacDonald, a parent in North Uist, told Am Pàipear that she is currently paying £625 a month to send her children to nursery for three and a half hours a day, three days a week so she can continue working.
Ceiteag said that national level investment is needed into childcare facilities and staff training to meet the needs of families with children aged 0-3 years as local authorities will not be able to plug this gap within current budgets.
A lack of staff and space compounds the issue. The required staff-to-child ratios get smaller the younger the child is; one adult can accommodate eight children between the ages of three and eight years but can only take on three children aged under three. These staff ratios and the square footage of the rooms dictate how many children the nursery can accommodate.
The problem is worse in North Uist which has experienced a ‘baby boom’ in the last few years. This has created more opportunities for employment in the childcare sector but the Comhairle has had little success in their drive for recruitment, with one parent saying they only see postings for ‘relief ’ positions, which are unattractive to anyone trying to earn a stable income.
A community meeting was held at the Claddach Kirkibost Centre on Friday, 25 August to discuss concerns around early years provision with Comhairle senior officers and North Uist Councillors in attendance.
Angela MacVicar was at the meeting and told Am Pàipear of the difficulty she is having in securing childcare for the gap between her return to work and when she can get a space in the nursery.
“I put my son on the waiting list in January and he can’t get in until November. I need to go back to work in September so I have to rely on my dad providing childcare. He’s self-employed and will have to take the time off unpaid.”
Aimée Fuller echoed Angela’s concerns and said that, although she hopes that she has been able to secure a space for her child, she is worried about what to do during school holidays when the nursery at Sgoil Uibhist a Tuath is closed.
“I work full time as a manager in a hotel so my busiest times are in the holidays when the nursery is closed! We don’t have family on the island to rely on either.”
All the parents that Am Pàipear spoke to were quick to praise the nursery itself and the service they receive from the staff but expressed disappointment at the lack of funding and care shown by the Comhairle and, on a national level, the Scottish Government.
Following the meeting, parents said they had not been given adequate solutions had instead been given the opportunity to apply for a £500 council grant to start their own childminding business.
Cllr Hocine said, “I felt that most parents understood the difficulties in delivering a service that will suit everyone, especially in the current financial climate. There was a good and positive discussion and some good suggestions were made that the Council will look at and get back to the parents.”
“Comhairle nan Eilean Siar appreciates that there is currently a demand for spaces in Saoghal Beag Sgoil Araich Uibhist a’Tuath. Following a meeting with parents the Comhairle has agreed to look at a number of possible solutions.”
Aimee said: “Meanwhile women lose their jobs.”
Voove revs up for voucher roll-out
A spark of hope for improved digital connectivity in the Western Isles as local supplier signs up for Scottish Government’s £5k voucher roll out.
Figures released last month revealed the extent to which the Western Isles have been left behind when it comes to the promise of delivering superfast Broadband for all.
The Reaching 100% (R100) project set out to ensure everyone is Scotland had access to broadband speeds of 30-mbps or over by the end of 2021. When it became clear that a good number of households would not be reached by the target date, Scottish Government launched the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS) with the aim of enabling people outside the scope of the project to apply for a voucher to get connected via an alternative supplier.
With no alternative suppliers signed up to deliver the voucher scheme in Uist, take up has been non existent.
An FOI request from Scottish Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron
recently revealed that none of those awaiting improved broadband access in the Western Isles had been able to make use of the voucher, and of the 6,5897 properties in the north of Scotland connected through the R100 scheme, none were in the Western Isles.
That situation is set to change with the announcement that local supplier Voove has been granted ‘referred supplier’ status.
Voove Managing Director Angus Doyle explained how the voucher scheme can help those struggling with poor connectivity:
“Our aim is to connect the unconnected. We have a hybrid approach using a mix of 4G and Fixed Wireless. The plan is to utilise commercial 4G equipment to deliver residential internet at the highest capacity available and ensure that the technology we install today meets the requirements of today, but is also future-proof for tomorrow’s technological upgrades.
“We are exploring other solutions in areas where 4G is not suitable, for example by delivering internet via Fixed Wireless connection, much in the same way that Hebnet delivered internet, but with speeds 200 times that of Hebnet, in some cases, without the need to dig up roads to lay fibre.
“Our goal is to deliver all of these services at £35 per month or less for unlimited internet, and all within the scope of the voucher scheme.
“The more support we have from the local council, townships and the community as a whole, the quicker the delivery and the greater the coverage can be achieved.
“There is no big windfall to be had here, our role is to infill what BT cannot, as it stands the Islands have one final opportunity to take advantage of the offering by the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme. As a local business, we are taking part in this with the understanding that there will be no profit made on any of the equipment, masts, or hardware required to deliver this.”
Those wishing to find out more about the voucher scheme can contact Voove direct, or check out the scotlandsuperfast.com website, where a post code checker will confirm eligibility.