I often introduce myself as the MSP for the most beautiful constituency in Scotland. In my opinion, that is a perfectly reasonable description for the constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, particularly after a summer of travelling throughout the region.
But I am conscious that my job is not to represent the hills and the glens, but to represent the people – and we want to retain those people and attract others to make this place their home.
Since being elected I have made it my mission to impress upon government colleagues that the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is about more than the stunning landscapes which draw visitors from around the globe; it can and should be a vibrant and thriving region which leads the nation in terms of home-grown enterprise, attracting investment and nurturing talent.
However, depopulation of Highland communities has been one of the biggest barriers to turning this ambition into reality – with young people in particular still forced to seek employment and housing opportunities elsewhere in Scotland or further afield.
Five ways we will deliver jobs, homes and digital infrastructure in rural areas:
A a rural skills action plan will be produced in 2018 to boost job opportunities for young people.
We are committed to delivering 50,000 affordable homes across Scotland by the next Scottish Parliament election.
We will look to increase homes in rural areas by exploring how we can fast-track sustainable developments, including housing, in rural areas.
We will ensure rural areas are amongst the first to benefit from our commitment to delivering superfast broadband to 100 per cent of properties by 2021.
A programme will be developed to address 4G mobile coverage ‘not-spots’.
This week the First Minister has set out our party’s Programme for Government for the coming year – how we will work towards becoming a fairer, more prosperous and innovative country, prepared to embrace the challenges of the future.
And I am delighted to see an important shift in emphasis.
While previous action by the SNP in government has focused on empowering Scotland’s rural communities, our plans in government for the coming session go even further and expressly put repopulating the Highlands at their very heart.
Central to that ambition will be providing more homes across rural Scotland, not just by building new homes but by bringing vacant properties back into use.
Across my own constituency you see myriad buildings which once served a useful purpose and now sit idle. A single sprawling estate alone might have half a dozen farmhouses, an assortment of byres and steadings, a scattering of cottages, a gatehouse or two or even an old mill all sitting empty. And while an abandoned croft house might be a haunting sight on a picture-postcard Highland hillside, for me it should provoke a less wistful, more pragmatic response: let’s turn these houses back into homes.
It is not a situation unique to the Highlands. From the Borders to Barra, from Aberdeenshire to Ayrshire, thousands of properties lie derelict – some in an advanced state of decay, but many still wind and watertight and in relatively good nick.
It’s time to bring them back into action to provide much needed homes for young people in rural Scotland.
The Scottish Government will this year introduce a planning bill seeking to strengthen and simplify our, admittedly imperfect and sometimes clunky, planning process. This could be used as way of generating new rural economic activity, and look at how best we incentivise use of existing buildings for permanent housing or new commercial projects. This has huge potential to revitalise huge tracts of Scotland – parts that have historically been, and certainly should be, more populated and thriving than they are today and need jobs and homes.
But none of this can exist in isolation, otherwise it would merely form a blueprint for empty homes. Highland Scotland needs more jobs and better connectivity too.
I am delighted that the government will also take forward a rural skills action plan next year to enhance job prospects for young people in my constituency and across rural Scotland. I want to hear from people in Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch about what they would do to create new jobs and make their communities flourish.
On top of that, the First Minister has this week put rural Scotland right at the front of the queue in our digital revolution, meaning the most remote communities will be the very first to reap the benefits of comprehensive fibre broadband coverage.
I look forward to this bold ambition for the Highlands becoming a reality and to reversing the trend of depopulation once and for all – by repopulating and reinvigorating rural Scotland with houses and jobs for anyone who wants to make these communities their home.
Kate Forbes is SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch