Rural Economy Support (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 13th September 2017.

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Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

8. To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the rural economy in that well-known island of Skye, and in Lochaber and Badenoch. (S5O-01242)

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am very familiar with the island of Skye—I am sure that all members are—and there is nary a one who is not aware of that fact.

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting sustainable economic growth across Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch with a range of actions through our enterprise agencies as well as direct activity such as supporting the GFG Alliance’s purchase of the former Rio Tinto Alcan aluminium smelting plant in Fort William. I stress that it is early days, but the predicted investment will add £1 billion to the local economy over the next decade.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary will agree with me that broadband will be transformational in the rural economy. I warmly welcome the commitment in the programme for government to put rural Scotland at the front of the queue in the R100—reaching 100 per cent—roll-out

. Is the Scottish Government committed to working with community broadband groups such as Locheilnet and Badenoch Broadband in that process?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Yes, we are committed to working in that way. The community-led broadband networks, some of which have been supported by community broadband Scotland, have had a positive impact. Indeed, Locheilnet is an excellent example, having connected, I believe, 390 premises and having benefited from £91,500 of CBS funding.

Through our R100 programme, we want to provide broadband access to every home and business premises in Scotland by the end of the parliamentary session, and we are committed to doing so in our manifesto.

Photo of Peter Chapman Peter Chapman Conservative

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests.

Given that the less favoured area support scheme is an important part of supporting the remote areas that Kate Forbes has spoken about, what does the Scottish Government plan to do with the savings from the LFASS parachute payments option?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am not sure that there will be any savings from LFASS. Perhaps Mr Chapman means that, because the current intention is that LFASS payments, according to European Union rules, are to be paid for the forthcoming year at 80 per cent of the previous entitlement, there is a question about what happens to the remaining 20 per cent. We considered the matter carefully, and rightly so. It would have been contrary to EU rules for us to have devised a back-door route to make up that 20 per cent loss directly to LFASS recipients. That would have been a clear contravention and would simply have resulted in disallowance on a major scale.

As I presume that Mr Chapman knows, the European Parliament has urged the European Commission to reconsider the introduction of 80 per cent LFASS this year and is urging that that happen next year. I understand that the Commission is considering that proposal. As soon as we get further information, we will report back to the Parliament. Were that to be the case, I would have to find £13 million from my portfolio to make up the payment. I would certainly want to do my damnedest—if that is not an unparliamentary term, Presiding Officer—to do just that.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Lochaber and Skye enjoyed a busy tourist season this year. However, that has brought its own problems, given the lack of infrastructure to cope with the tourists. The single-track roads on Skye that lead to iconic attractions are at gridlock, as is the A82 through Fort William.

What will the cabinet secretary do to improve the essential infrastructure, to enable tourists to enjoy the sites and to enable locals to go about their business?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Kate Forbes has made me aware of that important issue through her assiduous work over the summer in meeting local groups. I am pleased to hear that Rhoda Grant shares those interests.

In some ways, Scotland is a victim of its own success. Tourism has become so popular, with things going extremely well thanks to the leadership of VisitScotland, assisted from time to time by the minister for tourism, that pressures are coming from that success. Members should not forget that the value of the money that comes into the economy is great. The extension of the shoulder season and attractions such as the north coast 500 are helping to make a step change in the contribution that tourism is making to the Highland economy.

Overall, that is a great thing. I know that a lot of effort is being made locally by businesses and people in Skye—Kate Forbes is involved in that—to tackle the problems that come with success, particularly at some of the sites that are extremely busy and, as Rhoda Grant is right to point out, at the end of single-track roads. Highland Council is also making efforts in that regard—I have discussed the matter informally with Margaret Davidson. A lot of work is going on behind the scenes, with the public and private sectors working together, to see what can be done in practice. I am delighted that tourism is doing so well in Scotland.