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The COVID-19 global pandemic can overwhelm all other topics. Anything discussed is coloured by its current and future impact on social and economic life. As such, the Arran Economic Group (AEG) had to consider the relevance of its annual 2019/2020 report at this time.
Its conclusion was it is necessary to outline the significant work that has been done over the past year and the work in progress on essential infrastructure and services. These will be required in any scenario we can envisage on the other side of the crisis. Here chairman Tom Tracey gives a summary of the report.
Arran Economic Group (AEG) was created to optimise planned infrastructure changes and initiate others as required, to support a sustainable island community and economy. This remains our objective.
The plan remains the same; retain and attract the workforce necessary to sustain our island community by creating and/or promoting an environmentally aware and welcoming community that is digitally and physically connected, with affordable accommodation, competitive education and caring and competent health and social care services. Arran is making good progress on most fronts.
An overview of 2019/20 shows reasonable growth in the economy to the turn of the year. Then, a combination of weather, ferry service and COVID-19 caused, first a stall and then a collapse, leaving revenue growth flat, at best, for the last fiscal year. Shortage of affordable housing continues to place a burden on employment in all sectors.
The age demographic continues to place a strain on health and social care services. However, this older age group also provide the core of many voluntary services that hold communities together.
Continuing on the positive, Quality of Life on Arran remains within the top 10 per cent of Scottish local authorities and our last population estimate showed a slight increased, reversing a 17-year downward trend.
On affordable housing, North Ayrshire Council houses have started in Brodick – currently suspended – and a £3.6m grant from the Rural and Island Housing Fund to support the development of another 43 affordable houses will further increase the supply. However, the current crisis has caused delays in private financing and we are taking longer to secure funding, although we will.
Our Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) has passed the latest hurdles in integrating organisation and infrastructure. More to be done but very much on track. Clearly this is the service we are depending on most at the current time and we pay tribute to their dedication, care and competence.
Arran’s communities are largely held together by volunteers, as highlighted in last week’s Banner. Arran Community and Volunteer Service (ACVS) fulfils the essential role of supporting these groups from the very young to the not so young. Continued integration with HSCP activities and plans provides added focus and resource to the area most needing it.
Superfast Broadband uptake continues to expand to 70 per cent of Arran households, the second highest uptake in the Highlands and Islands. We also have two sites providing 4G plus Scottish Futures Trust providing a service to Kilmory. In addition, a significant number of locations have direct fibre to the premises, with more to follow.
The environment has always had many champions on Arran but it is worth mentioning two of them.
The work of COAST in setting up the Marine Protection Area (MPA) in Lamlash was again scientifically vindicated last year with the research showing increased quantity and variety of marine species within the MPA and the immediate surrounding areas. This is game changing work that puts Arran at the forefront of marine environmental protection and regeneration.
On the land, Eco Savvy has been instrumental in driving several key initiatives on waste, travel, energy, food and general understanding. These initiatives have had a measurable difference by highlighting the problem and promoting the solutions. They will play a major part in helping us define our environmental future.
Physical connectivity to the island remains a serious problem with no clear timetabled solution. It was hard to imagine at the beginning of this, when we had a collapsing pier, zero Superfast Broadband and limited mobile connectivity. As well as no plans for additional affordable housing and a sub optimal HSPC, that a ferry service, with more than 150 years of history, would be the hardest problem to solve.
However, that is the case. Arran Ferry Committee is working tirelessly at all levels, including ministerial. The results suggest the governmental and quasi-independent structures that provide our service, operate independently and sub optimally on problems and decisions that affect our service, making them unfit for purpose. This is now a real risk to community cohesion and business development. Further work is required to match the seriousness of the situation and we should do this together.
Lastly, using historic data, we projected the potential economic landscape of Arran in 2030 which showed an annual increase of 100,000 more visitors spending an additional £20m with 50,000 more traffic movements. The expanded group identified 10 programmes to match these challenges.
Granted, the current crisis will affect these estimates, with a worst case 80 per cent reduction in tourist income this year, assuming restrictions of some kind remain in place till the autumn. However, it is unclear what effect the current crisis will have in the longer-term attractiveness of Arran.
It is reasonable to assume, as people lose their fear of human proximity, they will revert in even greater number to an environment that is clear, clean, open and welcoming. As such, the Arran community needs to be part of the decision on when and how this happens.
In conclusion, with the public sector at full stretch and much of the private sector on furlough, there is no clear way through this without significant cost, by every measure. We need to take care of our self, our community and our businesses. In tackling the last two, the current crisis colours everything, the work done and the work to be done. However, in most cases, it validates both.
We need to ensure we have the right plans, processes and governance in place as we exit this period to ensure Arran is in control of defining and managing priorities. We started this work in the public meeting in January and it is something we can and will continue to work on, with your help.
As we move through this period and everything appears to change, the fundamentals remain the same. We have an excellent environment, community and infrastructure and we are fortunate. The challenge will be deciding the changes we want to embrace, while retaining Arran as this special place to live, work and visit.
Chairman Tom Tracey accepts there will be challenges ahead. NO_B19report01
Signs of recovery thanks to the work of COAST as researcher Éilís Crimmins holds the largest Arran lobster recorded – 141mm male in the Lamlash No Take Zone. Copyright COAST. NO_B19report02
Work was suspended, shortly after starting, on the 34 new affordable council houses at Brathwic Terrace in Brodick. NO_B19report03
An Openreach van at a the No 1 superfast broadband box in Brodick. 01_B12openreach01
Eco Savvy will play a major part in helping Arran define its environmental future. Here we see shop manager Val Waite and project co-ordinator Ruth McLaren at one of the group’s events last year. NO_B31ecoX04