‘Challenging but interesting’ times ahead for tourism

The challenges and opportunities facing Uist’s tourism sector were explored in a day-long conference hosted by Outer Hebrides Tourism at the start of November.

All sectors were represented at the well-attended event in Cnoc Soilleir, with a national view provided by Scottish Tourism Alliance and Visit Scotland and plenty of local insight contributed by Outer Hebrides Tourism (OHT) and the local business operating here in Uist.

OHT CEO Sarah Maclean spoke of the Outer Hebrides as a globally recognised destination, highlighting the value of strong marketing. Ms Maclean referenced the success of OHT’s Made in the Hebrides promotion and its Eat, Drink, Hebrides initiative, which had fuelled visitor interest, and this year had earned the organisation a Scottish Food and Drink Excellence Award.

Presentations from Uist Unearthed, Stòras Uibhist and Ceòlas highlighted the work being done to promote Uist’s language, landscape and cultural history.

Lindsay Robertson, of Loch Skipport based Long Island Retreats, showcased the growth in agri-tourism, highlighting how marketable ‘Uist’ branded experiences and produce can be.

Agritourism in Scotland is currently worth around £60m, with the farm retail sector contributing an additional £110m to the economy. The Scottish Agri Tourism strategy seeks to grow that income to £250m by 2030 and the hope is that Uist can play a key role in this burgeoning sector.

If it was clear that tourism opportunity knocks for Uist, it was clearer still that numerous challenges lay ahead.

Ms MacLean said that, while visitor numbers had seen increases in 2021 and 2022, figures for this current season evidenced that occupancy rates were down on previous years.

Chief among the challenges was the devastation wreaked by the loss of the Lochboisdale ferry, which had left a good number of tourism operators out of pocket, and some out of business.

The new Visitor Levy (Scotland) Bill was set out as both challenge and opportunity.

Proposed in May this year, the Bill will grant local authorities the right to introduce an additional charge when a visitor pays for overnight accommodation.

Both the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Outer Hebrides Tourism had given the Bill their support, highlighting that money raised by the sector could provide much needed support for local tourism infrastructure. The Comhairle supports the introduction of the Visitor Levy but has yet to confirm if and how it will be applied in the Western Isles.

The Levy is expected to add a 4% surcharge to booked accommodation and will be charged and administered by local providers.

The Scottish Parliament held a public consultation on proposals, reporting that the majority of those responding were against the Bill, saying the proposals were ‘viewed by many respondents as an unwanted policy being forced on a struggling sector.’

Amanda Leveson Gower echoed the Parliament’s findings, saying that the administrative burden would sit with already stretched local businesses and act as a disincentive for visitors:

“It’s difficult enough for guests as it is. Getting here is a risk and if guests are stranded on Skye they can end up paying £300 or more in emergency accommodation costs. When ferries are cancelled, and as a consequence, stays are cancelled at short notice, it will be accommodation providers who are faced with reimbursing the levy charges. Frankly, I am hugely disappointed that OHT and the Scottish Tourism Alliance are supporting the Bill.”

Further legislative burden is facing the sector as a result of the Short Term Lets licence, which requires all providers of tourism accommodation to register their business with their Local Authority. In September, the Comhairle reported that it had granted 236 licences, and was still processing 180 applications, with a further 65 pending.

The highlight of the day was the the inaugural Our Tourism Community Awards.

The new annual Awards recognise, congratulate and celebrate businesses that deliver amazing experiences for visitors in the Outer Hebrides, champion innovation in the face of challenging times and showcase best practice.

Anne MacLellan from Hougharry, North Uist won two top accolades; the Best Accommodation Business Award for Balranald Campsite and the Best Food and Drink Experience Award for the Dunes Cabin. The award for Best See and Do Experience was awarded to Vatersay-based Mingulay Boat Trips, with Best Green Sustainable Business Award going to Castlebay Marina.

Anne MacLellan was thrilled with the Awards, telling Am Pàipear: “We’re absolutely delighted… The campsite business was established in 2012 initially with only myself working there. The campsite and the dunes cabin have now grown to employ 11 members of staff during the season. These prestigious awards recognise the great job done by my amazing team who make the visitor experience a special one. We’re grateful to all our customers, friends and family who voted for us and support us throughout the year. Ceud Mile Taing.”

Summing up the event, OHT Development Manager Mairi Thomson said: “It was a fantastic day, with a full house of tourism and hospitality businesses, community organisations and stakeholders, a brilliant line-up of inspiring and interesting speakers, mouthwatering seafood by Lochmaddy Bay Prawns and a wee tipple of Downpour from North Uist Distillery to celebrate the winners of our inaugural awards.”

£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 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.”

Bank of Scotland claims 50% drop in business

The Bank of Scotland has confirmed it will be closing its Lochmaddy branch on February 26th, 2024.
In a statement issued to confirm its plans, Bank of Scotland said: “With more customers choosing to use digital ways to bank and manage their money, visits at this branch have fallen. As a result, we’ve made the difficult decision to close it.”

The bank says the decision follows ‘an in-depth’ review of operations that shows business at the branch has halved over the last four years.

The bank says the branch, which now only opens from 10am to 2.30 pm on a Tuesday and a Thursday, has seen a 64% drop in personal transactions since 2018. The number of people using the cash machine at the branch has fallen by more than 50% in the same time period. Bank of Scotland say the branch currently has only eight regular customers.

In support if its decision, the bank says Lochmaddy customers are already banking in other ways, citing that 71% of customers using Lochmaddy branch have also used other Bank of Scotland branches, Internet Banking or Telephone Banking and 33% have also used the Post Office.

Although the decision to close has already been taken, Bank of Scotland says it will now carry out a ‘Stage 2 Branch Review’, engaging the community to further understand the impact of closure.
Commenting on the announcement, MSP Alasdair Allan said:

“I am very concerned by the proposed closures of the Bank of Scotland’s branches in Tarbert and Lochmaddy. While many customers are now able to make use of digital and phone banking, there are many services which can only be carried out in-branch, and there can be technical issues with digital banking as well as lengthy and frustrating waits to speak with customer support teams over the phone. 
“After a taxpayer-funded bailout of £30 billion following 2008’s financial crash, surely the Bank of Scotland can do better than this for its customers, particularly a number of elderly or vulnerable users, for whom making the switch to online or over the phone banking could be extremely difficult.”

Cladach Chnoc a Lin resident Catherine Laing told Am Pàipear of her growing resignation at the loss of yet another service: “There was a time when I remembered each new service improvement with a sense of wellbeing. Services are being pared back time and again until we are left to survive on just the crumbs.

“Lochmaddy is a thriving place, with a port office, a busy shop, two hotels and an arts centre. With new houses bringing more people to the village, surely the decision merits a rethink.

“The service provision in Uist is appalling. We used to have daily flights; we used to have drains cleared every year to avoid flooding in winter. The verges are left untended and we cannot walk safely along our single track roads. So a bank closing its door is just another loss among many.”

Fears have also been raised that a pattern is repeating: “It’s the same situation we had with the post offices; first they start with reduced service hours, so customers find it harder to access the service and the powers that be then have the evidence they need to support a branch closure.”

Bank of Scotland listed two viable alternative branches for customers to consider; the first being Balivanich and the second being Portree, which is described as being 47.09 miles away, with the helpful advice that ‘Public transport to Portree requires a short walk to Lochmaddy Ferry Terminal, then a ferry to Uig Skye Ferry Terminal, along with a bus journey and short walk to the branch. Journey times are variable.’ Am Pàipear suggests readers may want to check that the Portree branch is open, the ferries are actually running and the weather is calm before heading out.

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil has called for a change of heart:
“I have recently been contacted by constituents in North Uist who are concerned that the Lochmaddy branch is going to close. Customers living in Berneray, who do not have private transport, will have to make a 60-mile return trip by bus to access the bank in Benbecula.

 “The Bank of Scotland has listed the Portree branch along with the Benbecula and Stornoway branches, as an alternative for customers. It is crass to suggest that customers should take a ferry to access a bank.

 “I urge the Bank of Scotland to reconsider the decision to close the branches in Lochmaddy and Tarbert to ensure that my constituents continue to have access to the full range of banking services without the requirement to make lengthy travel journeys.”

Donald Cameron, Conservative MSP for Highlands and Islands, has also called for the branch to remain open.

Scottish ministers confirm go-ahead for Scolpaig development

The Comhairle has welcomed a decision by Scottish Government not to call in the Spaceport 1 planning application for ministerial determination. 

Scottish Government confirmed its intention to wave through the development in a letter to the Comhairle dated July 24th, saying: “It is not Scottish Ministers’ intention to intervene in this application by either issuing a direction restricting the granting of planning permission or by calling in the application for their own determination. Accordingly, you, as determining authority, are hereby authorised to deal with the application in a manner you think fit.”

The Comhairle has confirmed that the decision taken by its Planning Applications Board to approve the application will now stand.

  A Comhairle spokesperson said: “This is another important step forward in the plan to establish Spaceport 1 – a suborbital, vertical launch facility at Scolpaig, North Uist.
“Following receipt of the formal decision notice, our focus will turn to discharging the planning conditions and delivering on the mitigations laid out in the Environmental Impact Assessment.
“Spaceport 1 will provide an opportunity for the economy of the Outer Hebrides to grow and diversify and will provide much needed local, professional jobs and training opportunities. Prospective launch companies are already looking at working with local businesses and establishing an on-island presence to support launches in future years.  Even at this early stage, it is acknowledged by the launch industry that Spaceport 1 – and the Outer Hebrides – has a critical role to play in the expansion of the Scottish and UK space sectors.” 

The campaign group Friends of Scolpaig has greeted the announcement with dismay, saying that the development has not been given time for full consideration.

A spokesperson for the Group told Am Pàipear:
“The Scottish Government Planning and Environmental Appeals Division was duty bound to fully consider and review the submission before concluding its decision. It is difficult to imagine that this requirement could have possibly been carried out in full in the 28 day period between the Comhairle’s submission and the deadline for their deliberation. The submission was made up of detailed plans, illustrations and diagrams and literally thousands of pages of technical reports and opinions, we feel no comfort that this exercise can have been executed with any proper scrutiny.”

The Group says that the Comhairle set out to bypass requirements for the longer period of public consultation required for larger developments by carefully structuring the site within a two hectare boundary:

“It was a cynical move that delivered a double blow for Uist; for not only did it effectively shut down any meaningful opportunity for the public to assess and comment on the dozens of complex reports the Comhairle submitted with its application, but worse, it forced the access road to the launch pad right through the farm steadings. If the site had moved beyond a two hectare ‘red line’ boundary, the road could have skirted the historic buildings entirely. As it is, the Comhairle has successfully avoided the longer statutory 12 week consultation period for larger developments and Spaceport 1 will be going ahead without any proper scrutiny of the project’s supporting evidence.”

  The Comhairle has yet to confirm a timeline for construction but said it is anticipated that the first launch from Spaceport 1 could be in late 2024 or early 2025.

Uist catching sector’s £3m contribution

Over the summer, fishing vessel owners and skippers from across the country will be taking part in the annual survey of the UK fishing fleet.

The Uist survey makes up one small but very important part of a UK wide research operation that covers every UK port from Lerwick to Falmouth.

Key findings from each year’s survey are published by Seafish, the public body that supports the UK seafood industry.  The reports provide a fascinating overview of the UK fleet, detailing not only the facts and figures that make up the sector, but the personal perspectives of the 6,800 men and women who make their living from it.

The last survey concluded that there were 4,269 active fishing vessels registered in the UK, around 64% of which were under 10 meters in length, providing work for around 6,835 people.
The same survey reports around 631,000 tonnes of landed fish and shellfish, giving the UK fishing fleet an annual turnover of £923 million and generating an operating profit of £240 million.

By value, the top species landed by the UK fleet, both at home and abroad, were Mackerel (£223m), Norway Lobster (£92m), Crab (£63m), Monkfish (£56m) and Scallops (£52m).

Scotland reported 1,713 active vessels, making up around 47% of the value of the UK catch.

Across North Uist, Grimsay, South Uist and Eriskay, 39 registered vessels landed almost 700 tonnes of catch, generating an income of around £3m and providing around 30 jobs. Lewis and Harris generated a further £3m of income through Stornoway, with Barra earning £2.3m between Castlebay and Northbay.

The survey reported mixed feelings across UK vessel owners, with 36% rating their business performance over the previous 12 months as poor or below average, 31% as average and 31% rating it above average or excellent.

Looking ahead, 29% of vessel owners rated the outlook for the next 3-5 years as bad or very bad compared to 35% who rated it good or very good.  

In Uist, researchers reported the main areas of focus for skippers was the cost of doing business, the threat of restrictive fishing policy, the difficulty of finding crew and, of course, the weather, which severely restricted the number of days at sea.

The sharp rise in the cost of fuel was a cause of great worry to every part of our local fleet.
There was unanimous agreement regarding the threat posed by Marine Protected Areas and Highly Protected Marine Areas. The researchers said many skippers were fearful that restrictions would decimate their business: ‘here in the islands, where fishing was much more than just a job, they felt a wider threat to traditional and cultural heritage.’

On the question of environmental protection, the researchers said that most of the Uist fishermen they spoke to believed that, with proper management and collaboration, a place could be found for both conservation and fishing.

One of the Uist researchers reported: “The level of proactivity when collaborating to share evidence, data, knowledge and expertise is overwhelming. It’s a clear proof of the commitment of the local fleet to do everything in their power to help not only the industry, but policy makers and other stakeholders involved.”

Difficulties recruiting crew was also a common theme, particularly with larger boats which rely directly on foreign labour: ‘with the current restrictions from the relevant administrations, it’s very difficult to crew up many of the boats.’

Many of the fishermen described last year’s weather as the worst in years, which together with increasing restrictions, lower market prices and very high fuel costs, made simply trying to cover operational costs a challenge.

Juan Carlos Paredes Esclapez, Economics Project Manager at Seafish and one of the researchers carrying out survey work in Uist last year, emphasised the importance of the survey work:
“The UK Fishing Fleet Survey plays a crucial role in tracking the performance of our fishing industry. By participating in this survey, vessel owners and skippers have the chance to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

“The data collected will be invaluable in informing policymakers, industry stakeholders and businesses themselves, ensuring the sector is well-equipped to navigate future challenges.”

“When we were in Uist last year, the local fishermen were incredibly supportive of our survey work, sparing us time they probably didn’t have to speak with us and share their insights in terms of financials, employment, fuel consumption and gear.”

Juan Carlos is hoping a flexible approach will encourage local skippers to participate again this year:
“We aim to visit all the harbours and meet with as many fishermen as possible, even if it’s over a tea or coffee instead of in the harbour. At the end of the day, everyone’s opinions and views matter so we try to be as flexible as we can and adapt our field work to their schedules.

“The Hebridean fleet has a good track record of fisheries management, respecting seasonal closures and pot limitations, for example.”

This year’s Uist survey work will be undertaken by researchers Sheriene Murphy and Rebecca Spain (pictured), who will be in Uist for a week from 12th August.

A Seafish spokesperson said: “The survey takes no longer than 15 minutes to complete and all responses are strictly confidential, with no details from any individual vessel revealed.  
“Fishing businesses taking part in the survey can also request a free benchmark report. This is a valuable tool for comparing the economic performance of their vessel to similar ones in the industry, allowing them to identify areas for potential improvement. These reports can also be used as evidence in grant or loan applications.” 

More information about this year’s survey work and the data from pervious survey reports is available to view on the Seafish website

The call for compensation grows

The near daily updates on which vessel has broken down where and what service is re-routing from which port have made for a confusing time for ferry users, bringing costly delays, missed appointments and empty shelves for island stores, and further damaging Uist’s credibility as a viable holiday destination.

No sooner had the 10-day delayed reopening of Uig pier been announced on March 23rd, when the pier was closed again after a temporary linkspan failed to safely manage vehicles over 10m in length. A day of mayhem ensued, followed by three further days of closure before normal service resumed on the 28th.

That same afternoon, the MV Hebrides set out from the newly reopened pier only to return soon after, when a fire broke out in the engine room. It was the second time that month that the boat had been hauled up for urgent repairs, forcing further cancellations and service changes.

The following day, CalMac announced that delays in the scheduled overhaul programme would result in the suspension of all services in and out of Lochboisdale beyween 5th April and 12th May, effectively shutting down the south end of the island during one of its busiest periods.

Questions are now being asked, not just about the service’s reliability, but about the safety of its ageing vessels.

Commercial customers across the Clyde and Hebrides network are now working collectively to deal with the issues they face and are seeking legal advice on the lifeline service provision.

The group, which includes Benbecula hauliers DJ Buchanan as well as DR Macleods, has written to Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth, saying: “The financial impacts have been and continue to be felt across all island communities on the network, with no confidence that things are going to improve in the next few years”.

Tourism businesses are raising concerns that summer business is now being impacted.

As the Transport Minister arrived to attend a meeting at Cnoc Soillier at the end of March, a single protester made her presence felt outside the building’s gate. Amanda Leveson Gower’s banner put into simple words the impact the failing service is having on Uist life: ‘Every cancelled ferry is killing our islands’.

Amanda runs Langass Lodge in North Uist, and spoke to Am Pàipear about her concerns:
“We used to be known for the beauty of our landscape and wildlife, but when you mention ‘Uist’ now, people just think of our failing ferries. Our reputation is being tarnished and it’s not just summer business at risk, but the total loss of our winter trade.

“The hotel used to be open year round and the regular flow of businesspeople and workers helped keep us going. That trade has dried up as companies don’t want to risk having staff stuck here with the extra costs that brings. So now we have to close over the winter and that has radically changed our business.

“Not being able to employ staff year round has made it harder to get local workers, who need more than a seasonal post to keep them going. So we have had to rely on incoming seasonal staff, who of course need accommodation. This has led to us buying two ex Local Authority homes to house our workers, which is costly for us but also takes potential homes away from local people.

“Government has sleepwalked into this situation and we just haven’t made enough noise to stop them. They haven’t listened and here we are – this is what motivated me to protest today.”

With island businesses so badly affected, the call for compensation is growing louder.

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, chair of both the CNES Transport Committee and HITRANS, told Am pàipear: “All too often we are left counting the cost of decision-making that appears to be ill-judged and fails to best address the needs of the communities. The current well-documented difficulties have been part of our lives for several years now. Island businesses deserved compensation similar to what was delivered to Edinburgh businesses disrupted by the work on the Tram Infrastructure. The refusal to do so reflects badly on Scottish Government and must be looked at again.”

To conclude what has been another bad PR month for Transport Scotland, two Auditor reports published last month have strongly criticised both the arrangements to deliver new vessels 801 and 802, and their ever-increasing cost. The first report concluded that: “The people of Scotland have been badly let down by this project… There have been collective failures at government and agency level from the start.” The second added further fuel to the fire, citing the likely £293 million price tag and raising concerns over £87,000 of performance bonus payments to senior Ferguson marine managers during 2021/22.

Comhairle’s disappointment at LUF Bid rejection

The UK Government has rejected Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s £68m bid for Levelling Up Funds.

The Comhairle had submitted two bids under the LUF scheme: the ‘Eilean Siar Cultural Heritage and Regeneration Project valued at £18m, and the £50m “Eilean Siar Spinal Route and Connecting Infrastructure project.

Comhairle Leader Paul Steele said: “The Comhairle and the people of the Western Isles have been let down by this decision. Our Islands are one of the most peripheral and economically challenged parts of the UK – exactly the type of area that should be benefitting from this funding scheme.

“This will be hugely disappointing for businesses and community organisations across the Outer Hebrides who worked closely with the Comhairle in developing the LUF bid.

“This decision raises significant questions about UK Government’s approach to post-EU structural funds, and I will be writing to the Secretary of State to make that point and to seek engagement around the Government’s approach to island and peripheral communities.

”Although hugely disappointed by the outcome, the Comhairle will engage with the UK Government to see how a subsequent bid to Round 3 can best be developed.”

Alasdair Allan MSP described the Government’s rejection as a ‘slap in the face, saying: “The Western Isles – and the Highlands and Islands in general – gained enormous and lasting benefits from EU Funding. The evidence of that is clear for all to see in the form of causeways, roads and other vital infrastructure.

“Given our location and issues with depopulation, the Western Isles should be top of the list. Instead, we find ourselves overlooked and short-changed.’

UK Shared Prosperity Funds success

The Comhairle has had a more successful outcome to its application to the UK Shared Prosperity Funds, which has awarded a £2.2m to be invested locally over the next three years.

Cllr Donald Crichton, Chair of the Comhairle’s Sustainable Development Committee, said projects to be implemented from the fund range from support to low income households, support for young enterprise and support for skills development.

Loch Carnan development gets the go-ahead through new funding deal

Two Western Isles projects are set to benefit from the latest round of allocations form Scottish Government Regeneration Capital Grant funding.

The abandoned and derelict shed at Loch Carnan will be renovated this year with a £150k investment form the Fund.

The shed has been empty for many years and the site has become a dumping ground for abandoned cars and unwanted rubbish. Under the new plans, the dilapidated building will be demolished and a large commercial unit erected in its place.

The project is being delivered by Storas Uibhist, with work scheduled to start in the spring and to complete this year.

A formal process to allow local businesses to tender for the lease will start in due course.

A further £2m allocation from the same fund has been awarded to the Calanais 2025 project in Lewis.

Cllr Paul Steele, Comhairle Leader, said: “This is great news for the Western Isles – two regeneration projects that have had a lot of community input over the years have succeeded in attracting significant funding which will now accelerate their development.”

Concerns raised by Accounts Commission

Audit Scotland has expressed serious concerns about how Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CNES) is delivering on its commitment to provide best value for the people of the Western Isles.

The verdict was delivered in the Accounts Commission’s Best Value Assurance Report, the latest in a series of similar assessments running between 2006 and 2014.

The Auditors described the enormous challenges the Comhairle faces, but expressed disappointment that the positive momentum and improvements reported in 2014 had not been maintained.

The Report recognised the enormity of the task ahead, stating: “The Comhairle faces complex challenges: the largest real terms funding decrease of Scottish local authorities; depopulation; poor housing availability; and the most severe fuel poverty in Scotland. This places significant pressures on recruiting staff, particularly in critical areas such as social care.’

The Report highlighted a failure of senior leadership, saying: “Given the significant financial challenges ahead for the Comhairle, we are therefore seriously concerned that we need to again underline the crucial need for elected members to fulfil their leadership responsibilities in providing clear coherent strategic priorities and direction and thus deliver planned savings and improvements.’ The Auditors went on to detail the requirement for suitable support, adding: “We also emphasise the need for members to be supported in their responsibilities by effective training and development, including on their equalities obligations.”

Audit Scotland commended the Comhairle as a strong advocate for the Western Isles, highlighting positive partnership working and good community relations, as well as sound performance in education, local economic support and its apprenticeship programme.

The Comhairle has said it welcomes the newly published report, accepts its recommendations and will be implementing an Action Plan.

A spokesperson for CNES said: “The Comhairle is pleased that there is acknowledgement of the many successful initiatives underway and our good practice in areas such as community engagement, supporting the local economy and, importantly, being a strong advocate for the Islands. Our good collaboration  with our partners to bring improvements to the Islands is fundamental to how we work and we welcome its recognition by Audit Scotland.

“The Comhairle knows well and fully accepts the challenges that it continues to face, particularly in the light of the financial situation facing local government.  The need to increase the pace of change and develop our policies and strategies for achieving improvement are heavily influenced by the challenges of finance, workforce and leadership capacity.  The risks associated with depopulation remains a concern for the Comhairle and we will continue to work with our partners to address these through all our strategic work.”

The Comhairle’s Leader Cllr Paul Steele said; “The Comhairle is committed to transparency and accountability in all we do and welcomes this report as an important contribution to that commitment. The report identifies many of the key strengths of the Comhairle and describes some of the challenges we face. We agree with Audit Scotland on the importance of clear and strategic policy, long term financial planning and the Comhairle calls on the Scottish Government, once again, to implement a multi-year settlement which will allow for greater security for Councils to plan and deliver improvements and change. We have campaigned vigorously against the cuts which all local authorities but particularly the Comhairle, have had to endure in recent years. No-one recognises more than the Comhairle the challenges of depopulation, providing social care and tackling fuel poverty. We note the findings of the Accounts Commission and remain committed to working for our communities in a challenging financial climate exacerbated by COVID and Brexit.”

William Moyes, Chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “The Comhairle must urgently develop a prioritised action plan to address the serious issues it faces. It already has some of the elements it needs to make fundamental changes; it has an ambitious vision for the future and works well with communities and other partners. But without clear strategic direction and leadership from its councillors, supported effectively by officers, as well as crucial effective financial and capital planning, it remains uncertain whether the Comhairle can achieve the improvements it needs to make.”

The detailed audit work for the Report was undertaken before the local elections in May.

The full report is available to view on the Audit Scotland website.

£1m festival boost for local economy

The team behind the hugely popular Eilean Dorcha Festival (EDF) has published the findings of an independent Visitor Survey and Economic Impact Report, showcasing the value of the three day event – not only in terms of the sheer fun it delivered, but the hard cash it injected into the local economy.

The Report, carried out by MKA Economics in Stirling details the facts and figures that evidence the impressive headline figure of a £1m boost to the local economy:

• EDF attracted 4999 festival goers – 29% more than the previous pre-Covid event

• 49% of festival goers were local (2,229 people) , with the remaining 51% (2,549 people) visiting from the Scottish mainland and beyond

• The total average spend per visitor during the festival weekend was estimated to be in the region of £384.37, a 22% uplift on 2019 figures – providing a total spend of £991,290

• 65% of visitors cited EDF as an important or very important reason for their trip

• The event was supported by around £70,000 of public funding, with every £1 of public support generating a further £14 of economic value

The Report also highlights the great feedback the event generated, with 53% of festival goers describing EDF as ‘Excellent’, and 33% (34% in 2019) saying it was ‘Very Good’, giving an 86% satisfaction rate overall.

The most frequent answers to the survey question: ‘What would have made your stay even more enjoyable?’ referenced ‘better weather’ and ‘more reliable ferrries’.

Festival organiser Roddy MacKay was delighted with the results, saying: “We could see during the weekend that the festival was a big success, but we have been blown away by the economic findings.

“The study demonstrates the power communities have when they pull together to organise an event that helps build a positive, ambitious future, and that was particularly relevant this year after a last-minute hitch when the tent suppliers pulled out.

Suddenly we had to rearrange the full event from indoor to outdoor at the last minute. A call went out for assistance, and the community came to the rescue in their droves. It meant a change of stage, sound, lighting, a new event safety plan, everything. It effectively meant a completely new event had to be drawn up in a week but, somehow, we managed to pull it off and people clearly enjoyed themselves.”

“We are very proud that, for just a £10 weekend ticket, children of primary school age can enjoy not just the music, but a variety of fun activities, while anyone under five years receives free admission. It lends to a great family-friendly atmosphere.”

“In addition to the overall family experience, it is important that EDF delivers a substantial economic benefit for local businesses,” he added, “but to achieve an economic boost of £1m for the area in our first festival post-Covid is something we are incredibly proud of and a return of 14:1 for every pound received in public funding is particularly pleasing.

“It is our ambition to keep building on our success, to enhance the festival experience even further, and to make Eilean Dorcha Festival an unmissable occasion as part of a must-visit destination.”