Scots outside the Central Belt ‘failed by devolution’

A new television documentary on 20 years of devolution suggests the Scottish Parliament has focused too much on the Central Belt and failed to do enough for people in Scotland’s more distant geographical locations.

Children Of The Devolution sees BBC journalist Allan Little go back to his home town of Stranraer to find the opportunities for young people today are much the same as they were when he was growing up and desperate to leave.

While the two-part documentary does show the impact of policies like land reform, such as on the island of Harris, other areas believe they have lost local power to a centralising Parliament.

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In the first programme, which will be screened on Tuesday night, Little speaks to the politicians who have served in Holyrood since it was established and looks at the scandals which almost engulfed the parliamentary project.

Alan Little at the Scottish Parliament. Picture: BBCAlan Little at the Scottish Parliament. Picture: BBC
Alan Little at the Scottish Parliament. Picture: BBC

He also marks some of the groundbreaking legislation that has passed, including the scrapping of clause 28 that prohibited teachers from discussing LGBT issues in schools and the Equal Marriage Act.

Little poses the question of whether the Parliament has lived up to its promise of improving people’s lives and changing the country.

Returning to Stranraer, which is closer to Belfast than Edinburgh, to discover if “power devolved from Westminster to Holyrood has really reached the people”, Little speaks to pupils, teachers and parents in Stranraer Academy for whom the Parliament appears to have delivered little.

A modern studies teacher tells him while they teach about the importance of the Parliament, “it is sometimes hard when you’re in our area to connect the two things together”. Another says “we would like to be in a position where we can decide what’s best for us – the best people to make those decisions are the people in the region here”. Asked if power has been “taken away”, the two agree.

Similarly, the parents asked say “Stranraer is completely forgotten about”, adding the Parliament has not helped in terms of infrastructure, transport, accessibility, health or education. One adds: “The most overwhelming thing, if you speak to the people of Stranraer, is feeling cut off. It’s a frightening thing to think if you had a heart attack or you were in labour, you’ve got a 75-mile journey on a road that is shocking.”

The pupils who have grown up with the Parliament believe that as “a concept it’s a really good thing and has done quite a lot of progressive things”, but they say more focus on equality in education is needed. “The wealth of an area shouldn’t determine how good the school is going to be, how much funding it gets, and that’s what seems to happen,” says one young girl.

Scottish Liberal Democrats MSP Tavish Scott, who was first elected 20 years ago, says: “This was never meant to be a Central Belt Parliament, it was meant to be so much more than that and I still think there’s a lot to do on that.

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“Highlanders, islanders, lowlanders in the south of Scotland need to work pretty hard to get their voices heard in Parliament, which is still dominated by ‘how quickly is the Glasgow to Edinburgh train running today?’”

Professor James Mitchell, chair in public policy at Edinburgh University, agrees that Holyrood has become too centralising. He says: “The same argument that was applied for having a Scottish Parliament because Scotland was distinct and different from the rest of the UK equally applies at the local level.

“The local authorities and communities are diverse, with different interests and priorities, and we stand out in comparative European terms as one of the most centralised places in Europe. We need to empower our local communities, citizens and local government. They’ve been disempowered through devolution.”

The relocation policy devised under former first minister Jack McConnell just after the turn of the century had been designed to spread the benefits of devolution to the whole of Scotland by reconsidering the headquarters of any government organisations being set up, merged or reorganised. But the Scottish Cabinet faced open revolt when it chose to relocate jobs at countryside quango Scottish Natural Heritage from the Scottish capital to Inverness.

Little also focuses on cultural fights, including tackling sectarianism and the scrapping of clause 28.

Children Of The Devolution, BBC Scotland, 10pm Tuesday