Am Bratach No. 305
March 2017

Three men in a boat
by Martin Morrison

One fine May morning a few years ago, three executives from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and a dozen or so students found themselves marooned on the desolate southern shores of Loch Druim Suardalain in Glen Canisp in Assynt. How they got there, what they were doing and why, remain a mystery. We’ll probably never know. Let’s just say it’s probably best all round if it stays that way and just gets put down as a bad day at the Facebook page.

And there was no need for worry anyway. These were enterprising sorts, after all, and our eager scholars’ youthful vigour more than mitigated the ravages of life so clearly etched on their world weary seniors’ faces. After being stranded in this barren and alien hinterland for perhaps as long as two minutes, possibly tormented by memories of watching Deliverance at college but hearing no banjos, they immediately and expeditiously set about constructing a makeshift raft from the natural materials available, one capable of transporting a now deeply distressed party across the treacherous waters of Druim Suardalain, through surging swell up to three centimetres high and winds gusting one to two knots.

Reliable accounts from social networks suggested that after perhaps as long as ten minutes of utter terror the castaways finally completed the 100 yard journey with only minutes to spare before mild discomfort became a distinct possibility, safely back to the welcoming bosom of civilisation at Glencanisp Lodge, headquarters of The Assynt Foundation, gasping for tall lattes, lasagne and Pinot Grigio.

Mercifully, like all good executives, they had somehow managed to complete their labours in time to dress for lunch and then meet with me, at their request, to discuss the subject, content and general tenor of an epistle printed in this very newspaper. I had opined on, amongst other things, the ways in which enterprise companies interacted with small communities, particularly those embarking on major capital projects at their suggestion.

The offending piece had largely pivoted around the travails of two such enterprises in Assynt, almost entirely funded by enterprise agencies and lottery money and conjured into existence under their direct guidance, close supervision and de facto executive oversight from the first public meeting through to the opening day and, after things panned out pretty well exactly as the awkward squad had predicted, to the present day.

These projects had between them ploughed through, depending on which pots of discretionary public money one chooses to count, anything up to £7 million — substantially more if a lot of arms-length cash is totted up. They had failed to even approach attaining the promises made when first these schemes reared their ugly heads.

The thirty-five jobs, renewable energy projects, affordable housing, business opportunities and all round social and economic renaissance the Assynt Foundation would bring had been forgotten about within the first year and it’s been a downhill struggle ever since. The rest is history — and accountancy. The story of Lochinver Mission Ltd has been relayed here before and is too depressing and, frankly, embarrassing, to recount.

These two enterprises were both launched to massive acclaim and offered junkets and political photo opportunities in six-packs, while small and entirely self-selecting groups of people with nothing better to do and acting with barely ceremonial authority happily took on liabilities in the community’s name that they had not the faintest idea what to do with but which they thought would run themselves if only a hitherto unheard of strain of structured and seemingly mandatory community spirit would show willing.

But the groups pushing these were not the painted chariots of spontaneous, grass-roots community action portrayed in the publicity material. Although ostensibly formed through shows of hands at ad hoc meetings numbering in the lowest teens, these were state-issue flat-packs, assembled under step-by-step supervision from both development groups and funders.

They attain what little statutory meaning they have by dint of a letter of support from the local community council, which is always keen to oblige and hand these out to anybody who breaks the monotony of its monthly meetings with a fifteen-minute presentation and the promise of millions of pounds. But while once it was prospective businesses which made such pitches, today’s guests are almost invariably from any one of the large, private member environmental corporations who have had the ear of every Scottish government for two decades and whose very mission statements tell us loud and clear that economic development is definitely not on their agenda. And once issued with their ticket to invent a job for themselves, they are seldom seen again.

From inception until these unrequested liabilities were finally released into our environment, “community” — a word that should be forever imprisoned in inverted commas — involvement amounted to enlisting a few useful figureheads to sign here, here and here and make up the numbers for the cameras while the great and good take centre shot and speak of The New Dawn yet again.

Community involvement kicked in quickly enough after the opening days for sure, immediately after the politicians had had their lunch and vanished, but this has been almost entirely devoted to making sure that the clearly visible holes situated (by design, it would appear) the thickness of an unexpected invoice above the fiscal waterline wouldn’t be inundated at the first sign of light rain.

Before very long, in both organisations, crisis management was enshrined in the Articles and Memoranda. The subjects I most wanted to discuss with my new friends in Glen Canisp were the extravagant claims of rural regeneration trumpeted at the time, and how we reached the dismal realities that set in within minutes of the ink drying on the contracts.

They were eager to engage with me, too, and not slow to spell out their own grievances. After eight years of relentless grief with an organisation that was a major and oft-cited character in the land reform movement lionised by successive governments since devolution year zero, the entire bang-shoot was now under martial law from Inverness and they were becoming frustrated with “the people of Assynt”. It was clear to me that rather than them having considered for a minute that the politically-inspired models and business plans they had dropped on us might have been flawed in any way at all, they were pinning the losses and failures on a community that simply wasn’t complying with government plans. This in effect was their riposte to my article.

Woeful coffee aside — always a bad call when dealing with a journalist — our chat had been cordial and good-natured and the conversation wide ranging. Naturally, when discussing anything so challenging as the weather with public officials, I received not one straight answer to a single question, but I didn’t expect to and wasn’t put out. After all, the gist of my pitch was that they really ought to stop doing whatever it was and head to the nearest Job Centre Plus as their efforts of the previous twenty years had been economically useless and socially corrosive. Effectively asking them to make themselves redundant was never going to fly, I suppose, no more so than their wish that awkward hacks should shut up.

Their role was no longer anything to do with the original ethos of their grandfather organisation, the Highlands and Islands Development Board, and was now simply a mechanism by which government could recycle public money as visibly as possible and then claim to have invested X millions in the outback yet again, when they know fine well that 95% of the riches lavished on us never sets foot here and instead marches straight into the coffers of external contractors and the sealed bell-jar within which dwells the development industry, legions of otherwise pointless tertiary administrators and the grant junkies who follow like cleaner fish around a toothless old shark.

The next time they invite me to lunch, I expect to be asked to arrive before it is served, not while my hosts, no matter what perils they may have encountered on their way there, are settling down to post-dessert coffee, about which all that remains to be said is that it must have been custom-blended for the job, being bland, weak, instant and thoroughly unsatisfying from the first scalding sip to the last tepid dreg. And there was no need to build a raft as there was a perfectly good, grant-maintained path.


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