Quest for a voice

Quest for a voice
The Herald, By David Ross


The question of how Scotland’s rural communities could have a stronger voice in national affairs has been kicking around for years.  Tomorrow, hundreds of delegates will converge on Oban for three days of debate, discussion and deliberation that should go a long way to providing the answer. With a jam-packed programme shaped by the big issues that face rural Scotland, fringe events, study visits and a star studded entertainment programme, is this the moment that rural Scotland finds its voice?


COUNTRYSIDE communities are gearing up for the launch of Scotland’s first Rural Parliament which has been called to provide them with a cohesive voice for the first time.


Hundreds of people from small island outposts in the north and west to villages and communities in the central belt and the Borders will converge on Oban for the launch of the three-day event from November 6 to 8.


The Rural Parliament is modelled on a system launched in Sweden 25 years ago. The new assembly will aim to establish the priorities for the million-plus people who live in rural areas. It will break new ground in the UK.


There has been a growing movement for better representation of country areas across Europe for some years. This has established similar parliaments in Sweden, Netherlands, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, and Slovakia, and others. Some like Sweden’s meet only every two years.


The first European Rural Parliament (ERP) was held in Brussels in November 2013, with delegates drawn from 30 countries and more than 70 rural organisations


The SNP gave a manifesto commitment that Scotland would have one: "…to enable rural communities to engage more effectively with government."


Rural Affairs and the Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead, who will open the gathering, was delighted to welcome the launch of the assembly he has championed. He said: "Rural parliaments work well in other European countries, giving our rural communities and businesses a stronger voice in policy-making and an opportunity to celebrate all that is good about living and working in rural areas."


The event backed by sponsor Caledonian MacBrayne is expected to attract 400 delegates. Three-quarters of those intending to attend are from a wide range of community-based groups representing many strands of rural life from the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association and Scottish Crofting Federation, to two regional community council networks and Community Energy Scotland.


Mr Lochhead will open the parliament with other senior politicians and public sector figures attending. It will be chaired by John Hutchison from Lochaber, who chairs the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust which has owned the island since the successful community buyout of the island in 1997. He will brief the Convention of the Highlands and islands in Inverness this afternoon.


He says it is very easy to dismiss the idea, but he had come to realise this was a genuine opportunity for rural Scotland.


"Scots are often cynical and can just shrug their shoulders at ideas like this. But it works in Europe, so why shouldn’t it work here?"


He said he had two experiences where he saw problems solved just by having those in authority stuck in a room with those who were most affected by their decisions. A mechanism has been devised to allow anyone to raise any subject in plenary sessions, followed by assessment of delegates’ support.


The discussions will be pulled together in a report by rapporteurs led by former Scottish education minister Peter Peacock, now policy director of Community Land Scotland. The final report should make clear to central and local government which fronts rural Scotland believes are priorities for action.