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Caithness News Bulletins April 2005

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Northern Periphery Programme Caithness Towns And Villages In The A - Z

18 April 05

The importance of small towns to the well-being of the Highlands was highlighted at a European conference which opened at Dornoch today (Monday 18 April 2005). Delegates, 60 of whom come from Iceland, Sweden and Finland, were told that membership of the Highland Small Towns Network had grown from 7 to 12 in recognition of the benefits being enjoyed by communities as they deliver local projects which contribute to the development and well-being of their towns.

Formed as part of a European Northern Periphery Programme Project, the network comprises members from Nairn, Dingwall, Alness, Invergordon, Tain, Bonar Bridge, Ardgay, Lairg, Rogart, Dornoch and Golspie, as well as Inverness. Groups have already promoted 90 local projects at a cost of 500,000. Funding from a Community Chest, has been particularly helpful in enabling community groups to lever in other funding.

In opening the conference, Mike Greaves, The Highland Council's Head of Development and Strategy, said the formation of the network had enabled communities to meet together and learn from each other, finding out what worked and sometimes, more importantly, what didn't work.

He said: "Small towns are a vital part of Scottish life. 40% of our people live in places with less than 20,000 of a population. There is also a dichotomy here. Some of those settlements are struggling to retain population, particularly their young people, have a deteriorating economic base, are experiencing continued withdrawal of services (both private and public) and their fabric is obsolescent and often rundown in appearance.

"Others have turned a corner. They are a distinctive part of our heritage, provide a wide range of facilities and services, are a focus for community activity and are key economic drivers for many areas. For example, almost 4,000 businesses are located within our Project area, 41% of the total business base in the Highlands. Many small towns are also popular places to live. They have seen significant growth. We only have to look at our own towns. Dornoch itself grew by 15% between 1991 and 2001 with Aviemore growing by over 20%. Much of this stems from people choosing to move out of our cities in search of a better quality of life. They perceive small towns as being safer with more attractive environments and better education. Success can, however, also bring problems in its train. Social tensions in matters such as a shortage of affordable housing can also exacerbate local labour shortages, whilst growth can undermine a town's distinctive character with traffic congestion, insensitive development and suburban sprawl.

"There is a growing view that these and other problems facing small towns have been neglected in recent years in terms of both policy and funding. Our major cities in Scotland now have access to the City Growth Fund which had an initial 90m of Scottish Executive finance.

"Equally, much has been done to support and develop our more remote areas with, for example, help towards community buy outs. There is a perception that small towns are falling somewhere between these two extremes and, as a consequence, are losing out in terms of both funding and Scottish Executive policy initiatives.

"I am happy to say that this neglect is now being addressed and the issues facing small towns taken more seriously. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has recently announced the setting up of a Small Towns Task Group to be led by the South of Scotland Alliance. The first meeting of the Group will be held in May and I am sure that the Highland Council will play a full role in this Initiative."