Opinion – questionable timing for question time event

An impassioned plea for more housing to be built was made last week, at a meeting to debate how depopulation could be reversed.

Gary Mulvaney said the new homes were vital for the future of Helensburgh and Lomond, and attacked what he called minority interest groups which had opposed them.

Many in the audience of around 60 people seemed to agree – but it was a strange time to make the point, since the council’s local development plan proposing more than 1,100 new houses in the area had been agreed in mid-January.

Cllr Mulvaney, who chairs the council’s area committee which backed the plan, presumably thought the issue was key to the community planning partnership’s meeting in the Victoria Halls, which had been billed as a public ‘question time’.

So it’s a shame that the meeting wasn’t held in November, as originally planned, but was delayed until the decision had been made – unanimously, despite widespread public opposition to some of the sites zoned for housing.

Equally strange is the timing of the authority’s training for councillors this year – in May they will receive training in the Local Development Plan, something which was approved last month, after they were told by officers that they could not change it.

Another oddity was the fact that despite many people at last week’s meeting stressing the importance of transport, none of the 12-strong panel were from the transport sector.

There were spirited debates and some good ideas at the evening event, which followed afternoon workshops and perhaps inevitably focused on Helensburgh more than the surrounding villages.

It was chaired by Cove-based consultant Finlay Craig, who said: “The depopulation of this area has been identified as a significant risk.”

A single outcome agreement between the council and the Scottish Government stated that Argyll and Bute’s economic success would be built on a growing population.

Robert Wright, Professor of economics at Strathclyde University, said census data showed that between 2001 and 2011 the Helensburgh and Lomond population fell from 27,809 to 25,717 – a decline of 7.5%.

“It is not clear why we should look at population decline in itself as necessarily negative,” he said, before adding that the council’s funding from central government was directly related to its population.

“You want to be more connected to the places like Glasgow, where people would like to visit but not live.

“If you want to turn around the demographic thing here, priority number one is transportation to the cities,” he said, citing the example of Alloa where a population decline had been reversed because of new rail links.

Neil Walton called for more investment in rail infrastructure to encourage commuters: “Today the trains travel slower than they did 40 years ago,” he said.

“The potential for the service is huge, but we have a single track between here and the other side of Craigendoran.

“We could have three trains an hour, one of which is direct non-stop to Glasgow in 25 minutes.”

Other topics covered included digital connectivity, public transport and other issues for young people including carers, NHS appointment times in Paisley, Helensburgh’s seafront and charity shops.

Captain Alistair Willis, deputy naval base commander at Faslane, said employment at the base was going to increase from 6,700 to 8,300, adding: “I am very keen to get as many servicepeople as possible to live here.”

Mr Craig said the two-hour meeting would ‘directly influence the plans for the Helensburgh area’ and feed into community plan at ‘a population summit’ in March.

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