Cowal

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 1st September 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 5:00 pm, 1st September 1999

We move to the debate on members' business, on motion S1M-90 in the name of Mr Duncan Hamilton, on the regeneration of Cowal. This debate will be concluded after 30 minutes. Would those members who are not staying for the debate please leave quietly and without conversation? That includes Mr Brown, Mrs Deacon and others.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the economic crisis facing Cowal as a result of the continued decline in jobs and job opportunities, recent local authority cut backs, the perilous state of repair of Dunoon Pier, and the uncertain future of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry link, and welcomes the call by the Dunoon Observer for an inclusive, all party campaign to seek assistance for the area and to act as a focus for the regeneration of this important part of Argyll.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

That may be more than I need.

The debate today on the regeneration of the Cowal economy is the culmination of a campaign that was launched locally with the support of most of the local members of the Scottish Parliament and with the local authority, and I thank them all for their contributions. In particular, I thank the Dunoon Observer and Argyllshire Standard, which has been an enormously successful campaigning newspaper. I am sure that we will have contributions from members of all parties. My thanks also go to Maureen Macmillan, George Lyon and Michael Russell, who have played an important role in signing this motion and making sure that it got on to the agenda.

It is important to outline simply what the current problem is with the Cowal economy. Of course, the issue is complicated, as Alasdair Morrison will know from his recent visit, but, over the past couple of years, there has undoubtedly been a drop-off in the level of tourist activity on the peninsula, sometimes by 30 or 40 per cent: a cumulative hit that no economy could sustain. The Cowal peninsula and the whole of Argyll rely disproportionately on tourism for their income, especially since the pull-out of the American base.

The area has not been helped by the policy of the strong currency, which seems to have been encouraged by the Government in Westminster. I can inform the minister and the Parliament that the anger at the insensitivity of the policy, which ignores the needs of the local economy, should not be underestimated. I am sure that local businesses will have taken the opportunity to make clear to the deputy minister their disgust at the level of attention that they have received over the past while.

It is also important to understand that one of the major problems for Dunoon is that, as a regional retail centre, it has taken a damaging hit following what happened across the water in Gourock. We will come back to the link between Dunoon and Gourock later in the debate, because it is pivotal to the plan for regeneration.

The area's decline is mirrored in the population. In the period 1991-97, the population of the area has declined by approximately 7 per cent. The figures from the voluntary census that Argyll and Bute Council took in 1999 show that the population appears to be down to less than 15,000. That gives a sense of a community in decline. The area needs to be built up, but the figures are going in the wrong direction.

Unemployment is central to the motion before Parliament. The unemployment rate on the peninsula-7.2 per cent-is substantially above the average of 5 per cent in the area served by Argyll and the Islands Enterprise, which is part of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The momentum is a downward spiral. Local concern has reached this Parliament-there is no chance that that would have happened in Westminster, given the lack of time there. It is important for the prestige of this Parliament-certainly in the part of the world that we are talking about-that we have had the opportunity to have this debate, which I very much welcome. However, people in the area are looking for more than warm words; we want concerted action from the Scottish Executive to ensure that the problems can be alleviated and turned around.

It has been suggested that there has been an overreaction to this problem and that it is not as bad as we think. I have to say that the mood on the ground is that we must be aware of the reality of the problem. That is the mood not just from businesses, which are perhaps the best weather vane of this, and not just from people who see the rundown in the quality of the buildings and the number of people in the town, but from the council, which is talking about setting up a Cowal regeneration task force specifically charged with making sure that we draw together all the interest groups-including politicians, economic groups or whatever-to ensure that we drive things forward and make others aware of the reality of the problem.

What do we do about the problem? That is the basis of this debate.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Mr Hamilton paints a worrying picture, but I recognise and identify with it. The SNP's policy is to get rid of nuclear weapons from the Holy loch and the area. If that were to happen, does he agree that the economy of Cowal and the surrounding area would become much worse?

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

We seem to be suffering from a time warp.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

I am sorry, I meant Faslane.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

The real problem in the Cowal economy is not caused by the leftovers of the removal of the US naval base. It is caused by real, current economic problems. Phil Gallie represents a party-he represented it in the Westminster Parliament, too-that has not served Argyll and Bute well and has not served the Cowal peninsula well. A lot of the problems go back to a lack of investment at a much earlier stage. I look forward to the regeneration of the Tory party in terms of a base of ideas for positive thinking. It is not enough to tell the SNP that, because we took a principled stance against nuclear weapons, we are responsible for the current plight of the Cowal economy. We have to do a bit better than that, Mr Gallie.

The key to the problem is the rebuilding of Dunoon pier, which will be more memorable to many older members in terms of trips doon the watter than it is to me. That experience is not really open to people of our generation-I say that to the deputy minister. The problem is largely that the pier is falling down. According to the report commissioned by the Argyll and Bute Council transport and property chiefs, it is unsafe: 40-tonne lorries cannot disembark on the pier and, unless there is massive investment-initially about £50,000 to patch it up as an interim measure-17-tonne vehicles will not be able to use it either. That is not good enough for business, given that we are looking at rebuilding the area and providing a quality transport link.

We are in a catch-22 situation because, until we get funding for the pier, which the cash-strapped council is in no position to give, Caledonian MacBrayne cannot guarantee the ferry link. Moreover, until the Deloitte & Touche report into the maintenance of the link between Gourock and Dunoon is published, the council cannot ask for money for the pier. We must have an early resolution of that problem. It is important that we see the matter as an integrated transport problem. This is not just about building the pier because it looks nice; a rebuilt pier will be the driver for growth in the area.

Professor Neil Kay is the foremost expert on the ferry routes in the area and on the need for regeneration and how we achieve it. He wrote in the Dunoon Observer and Argyllshire Standard, which I mentioned earlier:

"There are two things to bear in mind as far as Dunoon pier is concerned. It is an integral part of the public transport system-buses and trains-which is now Government policy. That wasn't the case when the Deloitte and Touche report was commissioned. Secondly, the cross-Clyde run is similar to the Forth bridges in terms of being a transport link across a major estuary . . . it is a mistake to say the pier is just for Dunoon. The pier has symbolic importance but it is much more than that-it is actually part of a major transport route."

I ask members to view the problem in its proper environment.

However, when discussing the ferries, we need to consider the history of the Deloitte & Touche report. We have been waiting for well over a year since the leaked version of the report was published to find out what is going on. The Minister for Transport and the Environment simply refuses to give any indication of when that report will be available, and in the meantime the axe hangs over the CalMac ferry route into Dunoon pier. That is not good enough.

In a written answer last week the minister told me that the report would be published "soon". I am afraid that soon has been a very long time. It is about time that we saw this report, so that we can end the uncertainty. When the Deputy Minister for the Highlands and Islands and Gaelic comes to respond, I would welcome some indication-perhaps even a date-of when we will be able to see it. The report affects so many lives and so many livelihoods that there are no grounds for concealing it any longer.

We must also bear in mind the fact that there are two ferry routes in this area; some members may not be aware of that. One is run by Western Ferries, and one by Caledonian MacBrayne. Local people want us to move away from the idea that only one or other of those routes can be maintained. We want the CalMac route to be maintained and have no problem with the maintenance of the Western Ferries route. We want to avoid monopoly pricing and a situation in which Western Ferries, which handles a substantial amount of traffic, is able to charge through the nose for that. We do not want private business to be run out. I do not see why it is impossible for the Government to put fair competition at the heart of its strategy. The restrictions under which CalMac operates at the moment mean that we have far from fair competition.

It is important to recognise that Western Ferries deals largely with the lucrative end of the market-vehicle traffic. However, its passenger safety provisions are not to anything like the same standard as CalMac's. It has a different form of craft, and the Western Ferries port is way out of town. Professor Kay has estimated that the impact on Dunoon of traffic simply passing through on its way up the peninsula, without attempting to stop in the town, would be enormously detrimental to the whole peninsula. We have to examine this issue in terms of economic regeneration.

It is also important to recognise that, even if we were to get rid of CalMac tomorrow, Western Ferries does not have the capacity, in terms either of craft or of current facilities, to deal with all the traffic. That is a logistical fact.

Above all, if we want to regenerate the area, we must think about the impact on business. Again, I come back to Professor Kay, who is assuming a somewhat legendary status! He says something very interesting from a business perspective. When he was asked what he thought the current climate would mean for a business, he replied:

"You can't really begin to talk about the future of the community until you have established a secure transport base.

If I were a firm looking at locating over here I would just look at the uncertainty over transport that has existed here for some years.

That would worry me because if it did come down to one transport operator then how are prices to be regulated? There is no regulatory structure in place for dealing with that."

That, in a nutshell, is the argument against a monopoly. It is why we need not only the maintenance, with additional Government money, of Dunoon pier, but an early commitment to the CalMac route to Gourock, to fair competition between the thriving Western Ferries and the vital service provided by CalMac, and to the crucial and traditional Dunoon pier.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Before taking members' contributions in this debate, I must indicate that there will be a three-minute time limit on speeches.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour 5:13 pm, 1st September 1999

I think that Duncan is over-egging the pudding when he says that Cowal is entering a spiral of total decline. I phoned Argyll and Bute Council about this, and the statistics that it gave me did not bear that out. The council said that it did not consider the Cowal area, apart from the west of Cowal around Tighnabruaich, to be a fragile area, that Dunoon had received a good deal of investment recently, and that it was surprised by the vehemence of Duncan's motion.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

Mr Hamilton has spoken quite a lot; it is my turn to speak now.

At the heart of the debate about Cowal is a crisis of self-confidence. This sort of crisis has happened in the Highlands time and again-we need only think of Corpach, Invergordon, Machrihanish and Benbecula. When a large employer leaves an area, that causes a crisis of self-confidence. People are afraid that things will go into total decline. However, there have been new initiatives.

From discussions with Argyll and Bute Council, I know that telephone service centres have invested in the area and that the swimming pool has been redeveloped. However, such initiatives might not generate the self-confidence that is necessary for an area to pull itself up.

A commitment by Caledonian MacBrayne to retain the service from Dunoon to Gourock would help to restore confidence in the area, as would the refurbishment of the pier. We await that announcement with great anticipation. There are fears about the cost and frequency of the remaining service should Caledonian MacBrayne withdraw. As Duncan said, Caledonian MacBrayne sails to the centre of Dunoon and takes passengers back and forward across the Clyde. I know Dunoon well and I know how essential the ferry is to the town; my mother came from Dunoon and used the ferry every day to go to school in Greenock. The loss of the ferry would have a profound effect on the economy of the town. I believe that the link across the Clyde is essential, no matter what the outcome of the ferry plan is.

I hope that Argyll and Bute Council and Argyll and the Islands Enterprise make a strong bid for European structural funds. I think that that is the way forward. In the European Committee yesterday, we talked about the importance of infrastructure and how, if infrastructure projects were to be funded by the structural funds, we would have to show that economic good would come out of them. I said that I wanted substantial improvements in the infrastructure of the Highlands and that we had to link that to economic development.

The people of Cowal have to keep up their campaign-it is important to show that they have a fighting spirit-but, more important, they have to have plans and ideas about how they would maximise the benefits of a refurbished pier. They cannot simply say that they want the pier refurbished; they must have plans about the expansion of industry, commerce and tourism. That is the way in which they can maximise their chances of getting funding for the project.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 5:16 pm, 1st September 1999

I welcome this debate on the future of the Cowal peninsula, which is an important part of Argyll and Bute and should be an obvious gateway to the Highlands and Islands. I congratulate Duncan Hamilton on taking forward the initiative of the Dunoon Observer and Argyllshire Standard .

Transport infrastructure is the key to the region. The Cowal peninsula is in many ways similar to an island and two election campaigns in the western isles and a lifetime have made me aware of how crucial ferry services are to those areas.

Cowal's economy, which had become reliant on the Holy loch base, is now very fragile. The agriculture industry is in a chronic depression and while prices plummet, so does the level of employment in an area that has the second highest unemployment in Argyll and Bute.

Forestry, which used to provide a lot of jobs when the commission employed its own workers in the forestry villages, employs hardly anyone. Most of the work is done by outside contractors. That policy could be reversed by using local labour for planting, husbandry and felling. If much more were made of them, Forest Enterprise's outdoor sporting and leisure resources could help those villages to become healthy communities again.

Dunoon's shopkeepers are not making money. People find it easier to shop where the goods are cheaper-across the water-and what is the point of charging people to park in Dunoon when there is no serious parking problem? It smells of bureaucracy and drives people away.

The welcome addition of a marina at Sandbank will create some jobs and restore and improve the appearance of the area. It is vital that we attract more such inward investment to the area, but that will be difficult while the uncertainty about the pier and the ferries remains.

Dunoon pier is an attractive legacy of the Victorian era. It is a focal point in Dunoon and I believe that a breakwater should be built to protect it and that it should be restored and used commercially as a point of interest in the town.

A roll-on, roll-off pier facility should be built, because that is the sort of ferry that will be used in future for short-haul trips. The two ferry companies should continue in a spirit of healthy competition. Dunoon and the Cowal peninsula's beauty will always sell the area as a place to live in or visit, but financial incentive must be forthcoming to encourage people to make their homes there even if their jobs are across the water.

I cannot leave this debate without mentioning the special islands needs allowance, which Argyll and Bute, with its numerous islands, should surely now receive, or without mentioning that lower fuel costs are the other vital key to restoring our remoter rural areas. Dunoon and Cowal are steeped in history. Let us take a leaf out of America's book, and provide our rural areas with sound infrastructure and better access so that they can help restore their former prosperity themselves.

We must remember that an economy that becomes dependent on a military or naval base is bound to suffer, at least temporarily, from a forced withdrawal. The inhabitants of Benbecula are about to experience the same problem, and I shudder to think what effect the closure of Faslane would have on Helensburgh and the surrounding areas if the Scottish National party was to implement its pledge to remove Trident.

Last, Para Handy and his puffer the Vital Spark were famous, frequent visitors to Dunoon. What Dunoon and Cowal need is the Vital Spark once again.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 5:21 pm, 1st September 1999

I believe that Jamie will find that the Vital Spark is moored at the end of the Crinan canal, so we might see it back in Dunoon again.

I welcome this debate; we have found ourselves in an interesting situation, in that the first question in the Scottish Parliament was on the issue of the Cowal-Dunoon ferry service and the first members' debate after the recess is on the Cowal situation again. That is what the Scottish Parliament is about.

Both Duncan and Jamie have mentioned uncertainty. The crucial issue in this debate is the uncertainty hanging over Dunoon pier and the future of CalMac on the Clyde. That has an impact even further down the Clyde, on the Rothesay-Wemyss Bay service, in which I have a passing interest.

The Cowal economy has experienced some difficult times resulting from the closure of the Holy loch base, but uncertainty about the future of Dunoon pier and the ferry service is having a detrimental effect on investment decisions in the area. Indeed, the chief executive of Western Ferries told me yesterday that it has suspended its decision to purchase a new boat until this issue has been resolved. That is a clear example of the effects of the uncertainty.

Amid the talk of crisis, we have to be careful and take a balanced approach. There are some good- news stories in among the doom and gloom. The number of telecommunications service centres has expanded rapidly over the past two years; indeed, with the opening of a second centre, the number of employees in that sector will increase from some 70 to 170. The minister and I visited Database Direct yesterday. It announced that the number of its employees is increasing from 87 to 119. Those are full-time jobs. There is some expansion there.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I have only three minutes, Duncan, so if you do not mind I will not give way.

As Jamie rightly pointed out, there is the prospect of a marina development in Cowal, so some momentum is lifting the economy from the dark days when the Holy loch base closed down and unemployment rose to 834.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

If you do not mind, Fergus, I would like to finish off, because other people are waiting to speak.

Unemployment has fallen from 834 in January 1993, at the height of the Holy loch situation, to 411 in July 1999. The figure has come down, but it is still too high and we need to take decisions.

I thank the minister for coming to view the situation at first hand yesterday. I have asked Sarah Boyack, the Minister for Transport and the Environment, to come and consult local people about how to proceed and resolve the future of Dunoon pier and the ferry service.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

It is very important that we get the Deloitte & Touche report published. We have to bear in mind that it is not just the Scottish Executive that owns that report; Western Ferries was a contributor and must be consulted to ensure that it is happy with the report being published.

I welcome this debate and support a lot of what Duncan said. It is essential that decisions are made about the future of the Clyde services and the Dunoon pier.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 5:25 pm, 1st September 1999

I shall be brief. I speak as a resident of Cowal and as somebody who shops in Dunoon, drinks in Colintraive, and whose son goes to Dunoon Grammar, although I hope that he will do better politically than other people from Dunoon Grammar-notably Brian Wilson.

I welcome the speeches of Jamie McGrigor and my member of the Scottish Parliament-although I did not vote for him-but I am surprised by Maureen Macmillan's contribution. She is a signatory of this motion. This campaign is being run by a distinguished newspaper in the community, which knows the community. I am inclined to believe Cowal residents and the people who write in that newspaper when they say that there is a crisis.

No matter what official spin-I hope that my friend Alasdair Morrison will be positive-there is from Highlands and Islands Enterprise or officials of Argyll and Bute Council, there is a crisis of confidence and an economic crisis. It does not help to hide from that fact. Duncan Hamilton has outlined some of the elements of that crisis. Let us consider some of the positive solutions. I welcome Jamie McGrigor's conversion on the question of local authority aid. It seems to me that that was always blocked when the Secretary of State for Scotland was a Tory, but I always welcome lost sheep into the fold. If he now supports this campaign, that is well and good. The Government has a duty to recognise the special circumstances-the island circumstances-of the local council, and to take action on them.

I say to Maureen that the question is not one of refurbishing a pier. We cannot refurbish something that is falling down. We must rebuild the pier and get the breakwater. The distinguished pier that celebrated its centenary last year is the life-blood of Cowal and must be preserved. It was a dereliction of duty by the local council before the change of administration-I have hopes of the new administration, as my party and Mr Lyon's party are in it, and we have a chance to change things-to allow that pier to collapse. The worst thing that ever happened to Cowal was the election of a so-called independent administration, which was led by Councillor Dick Walsh. It was a disaster for the town.

Fortunately, in the new politics we have decided to let bygones be bygones. The Dunoon Observer and Argyllshire Standard is leading the way with an all-party campaign. Let us get behind a campaign for island status for Argyll and Bute, restoration of Dunoon pier and investment in transport links. Let us get some energy into the local enterprise company and let us ensure that the ideas that Maureen talked about-the good ideas that appear every week in the columns of the Dunoon Observer and Argyllshire Standard-are translated into reality by a sympathetic council and a sympathetic enterprise company, both supported adequately by this Administration.

I hope that we will hear an enthusiastic message from Alasdair today. He will be very welcome in Cowal again and I shall welcome him into my own house-that was not a bribe-as long as he has something to offer to the community, which feels in crisis, wants assistance and has a community newspaper that is pushing the issue. We can solve the problem, but we can only do so together. We must recognise the problem that exists.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour 5:29 pm, 1st September 1999

I have a minute and a half to respond, which is hardly adequate. I will certainly take up Mike's kind invitation to visit him in his house.

The motion talks about a crisis. It is important to stress that the claim that there is a crisis is not supported by facts. As George said, I was delighted to visit the Cowal peninsula this week. Inward investment has been talked about. The main purpose of the visit was to announce that Government support, which we are providing through the enterprise network, will create another 32 information technology jobs in one of Argyll's most prominent companies, Database Direct. That will boost the total work force at the company to around 120.

As an islander, I appreciate how important communications, particularly ferry services, are for any community that relies on them. There can be no doubt that Dunoon's prospects are closely linked to the frequency and accessibility of the ferry services that connect it with the other side of the Clyde.

As an islander, I am also well aware of the importance of good connections to remote areas. My visit to Dunoon and the Cowal peninsula yesterday heightened my awareness of the importance of ferry services to the area.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

I have already gone over by 30 seconds, so I cannot let Fergus intervene.

Important public policy issues are involved. There are transport links involving subsidised competition with a private operator and there is a call, against very tight expenditure constraints, for significant investment in new infrastructure.

My colleague the Minister for Transport and the Environment, Sarah Boyack, has made it plain that a consultation document on options for the future of ferry services between Gourock and Dunoon will soon be made publicly available. I can assure Duncan Hamilton and the people of Cowal that Sarah Boyack and other ministers approach the consultation process with open minds and with no preconceptions.

One issue that is intimately tied up with such considerations is the condition of Dunoon pier. As Jamie McGrigor pointed out, it is a Victorian landmark which, along with the castle hill and the statue of Burns's Highland Mary, makes up what many generations have recognised as the classic view of Dunoon-a view that I enjoyed yesterday.

The pier is owned by Argyll and Bute Council and the maintenance of the infrastructure, which has listed building status, is therefore the responsibility of the council.

In conclusion, I remind everyone here that the motto of Dunoon, as we all know, is "Forward". I am confident that it will continue to move precisely in that direction. It will do so with a great deal of good will from me and from the other members of the Executive.

Meeting closed at 17:32.