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People of the Highlands and Moray question SNP candidates

By Andrew Dixon

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The audience. Picture: James Mackenzie.
The audience. Picture: James Mackenzie.

The next First Minister was quizzed by people from across the Highlands and Moray at the Inverness Courier Leadership Debate last night.

Contenders for the role – Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf – were put on the spot in Inverness on a range of topics.

Prior to the event, The Inverness Courier was inundated with hundreds of questions from interested readers.

A mix of submitted questions and impromptu audience queries were answered.

Co-operation for independence?

Among them was John Henderson, who asked whether candidates would support a strategy of asking people to vote 1 for SNP and 2 for Alba at the next Holyrood election as a way of maximising pro-indy MSPs.

Ash Regan said she was "very clear" that she wanted to work with "other parties, civil society and the wider (independence) movement" and said she had started reaching out to them already, but added that the 1/2 strategy did not work in all situations.

Humza Yousaf said he had "never seen a leader of a political party suggesting people vote for another party" but was open to working with other parties, citing the agreement with the Scottish Greens as "an example of parties with some commonalities, some differences co-operating in order to maximise pro-independence clout within the Scottish Parliament".

Kate Forbes echoed Mr Yousaf in saying she did not think it was generally "particularly wise" for one leader to recommend voting for other parties but that she would want to work more closely with other parties, generally saying she thought "the people of Scotland are crying out for that".

Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: Callum Mackay..
Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: Callum Mackay..

Poverty and inequality

Annie Gunn, who lives in Merkinch, Inverness, pointed out the neighbourhood was one of the most deprived areas of Scotland, before asking: How are you going to really tackle poverty and inequality across Scotland – especially in remote and rural communities?

Ash Regan said: "For many families living in poverty with children, at least one of their parents is in work. We need to prioritise refocusing the economy as far as possible to look at domestically owned production and companies based here and paying really good wages because it's unfair people work all week long and are still unable to really feed or clothe themselves and heat their homes.

"So we're back to the situation of high value jobs such as investment in the renewables sector. I think we have a huge opportunity to take a stake for the people of Scotland and create that supply chain which will provide those jobs and keep them in Scotland."

She also identified a need for high-quality homes for pubic rent and on energy described the UK energy sector as "a mess designed specifically to allow huge transfer of money to people up the chain" which needs to be reformed.

She suggested a publicly owned Scottish energy company to spearhead energy generation and supply.

Humza Yousaf said as First Minister, he wanted not just to reduce poverty but to "eradicate" it entirely.

Acknowledging many financial levers are reserved to Westminster, he nevertheless said it was important to maximise the powers available at at Scottish level.

"I believe in progressive taxation," he added. "I believe those who earn most, like politicians and government ministers, should pay more so we can invest in public services – and which allowed us to put an extra £1 billion extra into health services in 2023/24."

He also said more had to be done in terms of improving childcare, repeating an early campaign promise that he would extend provision to one and two-year-olds.

Kate Forbes pointed out that rural poverty is often more hidden than urban poverty and said it was "totally linked" to health inequalities.

"A nurse told me today that she is going into people's homes and treating them for ailments that are directly linked to the fact they are freezing in the their homes in Scotland," she added.

She called for houses "fit for purpose" and added that "if we move away from oil and gas too quickly we are going to leave a lot of our Highlanders behind because a lot of them rely on off-grid."

Ferry fiasco

Lawrence Fraser, from Elgin, requested a yes/no response when asking if the next First Minister would give a cast iron guarantee that the two ferry fiasco vessels will eventually enter service and serve our long-suffering island communities?

Ash Regan said: "We must complete these contracts and get these vehicles into service."

Humza Yousaf replied: "Yes, and we must invest and continue to invest in what is an ageing ferry fleet."

Kate Forbes stated: "Even better – yes."

Different issues for different areas

John Kirk from Nethybridge asking a question. Picture: James Mackenzie.
John Kirk from Nethybridge asking a question. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Farmer and businessman John Kirk, from Nethybridge, said: "I live in a national park [Cairngorm] and one thing that is often forgotten about is the local people." He pointed out differences between living within and outwith a national park, including depopulation and energy costs, and asked: "Would you please look into what’s happening within these parks?"

Kate Forbes said there needs to be a balance between bids for environmental sustainability and making sure that people can live and stay in the national parks areas.

She said: “It’s far too easily forgotten that the national park includes in one of its missions economic sustainability and the people. And the people are becoming in one sense, one of the rarest species in the national park.

“It’s so difficult to find a house or to be able to afford a house. You have a situation where there are booming businesses that can’t get staff, and they can’t get staff because nobody can afford to live there, and if nobody can afford to live there they go to Inverness, and it means that depopulation exists.

“We are all committed to environmental sustainability but at the moment I think the balance is not there and we need to ensure that there is genuinely affordable homes, that people can stay and it’s the right kind of homes.

“For instance, it might be possible to live there but as soon as one starts having kids you just can’t get housing. I think that the balance needs to be right, and for me, the root of this is planning and ensuring that the decisions made by the national park reflect the fact that the environment is important, but so are the people, who are part of the environment.”

Humza Yousaf said he would bring forward a land reform bill should he win the contest for becoming First Minister.

He said: “Central to one of the policies that I have advocated in the last few weeks is that the land in Scotland is still in the hands of too few people and isn't used for the benefit of all the people of Scotland.

“I am committed in my first year of being First Minister, if I am elected, to bring forward a land reform bill. I think there’s more that we can do to make sure that the land is benefitting all of Scotland, including our national parks, as opposed to benefitting or being in the hands of a few."

Ash Regan said: “I will commit to looking at those issues. You can’t have people being disadvantaged because of where they live, and that includes if they are living in a national park.”

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