Anger and despair in Caithness as region faces depopulation crisis

The Scottish Government unveiled an action-plan to tackle the issue amid growing fears of widespread school closures.

Despair about reduced maternity services, potholes and a failure to tackle depopulation has turned to anger in Caithness.

There are growing fears of widespread school closures if the exodus of people from the county continues at the current rate – and local patience with the Scottish Government is wearing thin.

Thurso independent councillor Matthew Reiss said: “There have been excuses made, a lot of broken promises. Dualling the A9 is probably the most obvious one.

“But our two health new hubs, in Wick and Thurso, have just been indefinitely postponed or cancelled, although the Scottish Government’s word for this is ‘paused.'”

The coastal town currently has the region’s highest rate of depopulation. According to data from Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Caithness is projected to have 2,400 fewer residents within a decade.

An action-plan to tackle depopulation was unveiled by the Scottish Government a fortnight ago by migration minister Emma Roddick.

Speaking at the launch of the plan in Fort William, she said the plan would consider “local drivers of depopulation, in particular local areas and the reasons that people are not coming to those areas or not staying in those areas.”

She pledged to “support local communities to tackle those drivers”.

Problems spelled out to STV News by Caithness residents are complex – with a consensus that gaps in NHS services are not helping depopulation and many roads are said to be deteriorating at a dire rate.

A reduced maternity service means more than 90% of Caithness babies are now delivered 100 miles away in Inverness, or even further away in Aberdeen.

The Scottish Government has paused investment on new NHS projects.

Ron Gunn of the pressure group Caithness Health Action Team said: “We were expecting to get word to improve the local hospital, the Caithness General Hospital, and the two local hubs.

“We would have had a new care home. All the NHS services would be under one roof. It would really have been an asset to the county but that’s on hold. For how long, we don’t know.”

The Scottish Government has described capital investment as “extremely challenging.”

In a statement, it said: “The UK Government did not inflation-proof its capital budget, which has resulted in nearly a 10% real-terms cut in the Scottish Government’s capital funding.”

Highland Council has acknowledged that 400 stretches of Caithness roads need urgent repair but has identified resources for just 17.

Iain Gregory of the campaign group Caithness Roads Recovery said: “We have reached a point beyond which this can no longer continue.

“We have problems with the roads, we’ve got problems with all of our vital services and, quite frankly, I think it should be noted by the Scottish Government and the Highland Council that people’s anger is growing by the minute.”

Parents say the scale of potholes in the area now pose a serious risk to pupils’ safety.

Deborah Woods of Mount Pleasant Parent Council in Thurso said: “We pretty much don’t exist in the SNP’s eyes because we’re sort of back of beyond and that’s got to change. We have as much right to services and decent roads as anyone else.

“This all about our children and their safety. They deserve a lot better than the roads that we’ve got.”

Several new pressure groups have emerged in the Highlands in recent months to turn up the heat on Holyrood.

Councillor Reiss added: “The red lights are flashing right across the remote areas and, without exaggerating it, the sense of despair and resignation is beginning to change to something a little bit more aggressive.”

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