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SNP leadership hopeful Kate Forbes: Give power to the people in the Highlands

© Paul Campbell/PA WireSNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes speaks with director Neil Sutherland during her visit to MAKAR Limited, a company that designs and constructs sustainable homes, while on the campaign trail in Inverness
Kate Forbes at Makar, a firm building sustainable homes

The SNP’s leadership hopefuls yesterday promised a new focus on the Highlands economy as experts urged action to halt an exodus of young people.

The three candidates to take over from Nicola Sturgeon as first minister were challenged on how they would secure investment and jobs for the region at a hustings in Inverness.

Earlier, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes told The Post the Highlands and Islands could be an economic “powerhouse” built on the renewable energy industries but only if investment for  infrastructure was secured with affordable housing a particular priority.

The MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch said: “Housing in the Highlands is probably one of the most frequently raised issues with me, showing how important it is.

Ultimately, a safe, warm and affordable home is the cornerstone of any society and we cannot combat depopulation if there are not enough houses.

“In the last six years, we have seen a major improvement in affordable housing, but we need to protect these homes from being turned into holiday homes or being sold at market rates which are beyond the reach of local families.

“Without intervention, we are at risk of losing key employees, young families and jeopardising entire industries who can’t recruit for lack of housing.”

At the hustings, Forbes promised to place power in the hands of communities by breaking up Highland Council, which employs over 7,500 staff and covers more than 15,000 square miles.

She said: “We know the approach to social care, the approach to local government, the approach to filling in the potholes, is going to look different in Portree than it does in Inverness.

“We need to get back to what we were all about as a party, which was empowering communities to make the best decisions for the people living there.”

Meanwhile, leadership rival and Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said he would back a rural visa scheme to attract migrant workers and tackle depopulation.

The proposal was announced by the Scottish Government last year but requires to be implemented by the UK Government, is based on a scheme in Canada.

Yousaf would also introduce a Crofting Reform Bill “ensuring that our crofters are given the support they require and not left behind by Common Agricultural Policy replacement structures”.

The Glasgow Pollok MSP, who is narrowly in the lead according to a poll of SNP members published yesterday, said Brexit had hit the region hard, adding: “A prosperous Highland economy is essential if Scotland is to flourish as a country as we know it can.

“We know agriculture, ­tourism and hospitality businesses are often suffering the most.”

At the SNP leadership hustings at Eden Court in Inverness yesterday, former community safety minister Ash Regan, the third candidate in the leadership race, said the Scottish Government needed to do more on land reform.

The Edinburgh Eastern MSP, who lives in the Borders, said: “I know that’s important to communities up here who have been priced out of buying homes and are finding it difficult to sustain things with the small amounts of land that are available.

“We have done some work on that but we need to go much further and much faster. We need to be building more homes for people and they should be for rental so they can’t be sold on and then end up as second homes or holiday homes.

She added: “I would look to see if it’s possible to give communities the opportunity to ban any more second homes in their area, if they think that that’s the right thing for them.”

Last week trade body Scottish Salmon warned a lack of affordable housing was the most pressing issue in the Highlands and Islands. Last September the Federation of Small Businesses warned parts of the Highlands and Islands were in danger of becoming “glorified retirement communities” unless they were given assistance.

And the following month a Highlands and Islands Enterprise survey said nearly half of all young people in the area planned to move away in the next five years.

© Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire
Humza Yousaf, Ash Regan and Kate Forbes

The three candidates were also challenged at the hustings on strategies for achieving independence.

Regan claimed there was ­“absolutely no substance” to the independence plans of her fellow contenders. She said: “We’re in a position where we’re just doing more of the same all the time. We’re piling up mandates and I’m afraid to say that’s what both my colleagues are suggesting right now. Their plan is a bit like giving you a bag of marshmallows – it looks quite nice, it sounds quite nice, but, ultimately, there’s absolutely no substance to it whatsoever.”

Responding to Regan’s comments, Yousaf joked: “I quite like marshmallows, I won’t lie.”

Yousaf also criticised her plans for a “voter empowerment mechanism”, whereby a majority vote for independence parties in a Westminster or Holyrood election would give her a mandate to begin independence negotiations with Westminster.

He said: “This idea that if we get 50% plus one then we can demand negotiations and instruct the UK Government to march up the road to Edinburgh, I don’t think that works.

“I’ve been in government for over 10 years. When there’s been a crisis and we need to get the UK Government on the telephone it’s been hard enough, let alone getting them to come up the road to Edinburgh to get them to hold negotiations and discussions.”

He said independence would become a “political inevitability” when there was a “sustained majority” for it.

Forbes said competent ­government would help to persuade people to back the independence cause, as well as “sketching out” how the first few years of an independent country would look.

Yesterday, Scottish Labour took aim at Forbes, urging whether she stood by the Sustainable Growth Commission, of which she was a member. According to critics, it recommended a programme of austerity to kick off the early years of an independent Scotland.

Scottish Labour finance ­spokesperson Daniel Johnson said: “Kate Forbes may be trying to present herself as the candidate of fiscal responsibility but the fact is she is an architect of the SNP’s debunked ‘cuts commission’. Far from being a progressive politician, Kate Forbes is wedded to pie-in-the-sky tartan Thatcherism, which will devastate public services and family finances to achieve independence.”

A poll of SNP members by Savanta for The Daily Telegraph on Friday showed Yousaf in the lead in the four-week race to Bute House with a large proportion of members still undecided.

The poll of 515 SNP members, who will choose the next first minister, showed Yousaf backed by 31%, Forbes 25% and Regan 11%. Undecideds stood at 32%.

Meanwhile, of 64 SNP MSPs, 25 have still to say who they will support. So far, 23 have shown support for Yousaf, nine for Forbes and none for Regan. Four have said they will not endorse any candidate.