Thursday 6th November 3 of us from KWHG, accompanied by the Local Development Officer from Applecross, headed down together for the First ever Scottish Rural Parliament, in Oban. Rural Parliaments are nothing new in many other European countries, Sweden held it’s first in 1989. The Scottish Rural parliament is not part of Scottish government, aalthough it enjoys funding and support from Holyrood. The event was also sponsored by Caledonian MacBrayne & HIE. It has been demonstrated in other countries that having a rural parliament is a highly effective means of getting rural issues to the table of urban centralist governments. The committee setting up this First Scottish Rural Parliament have been busy working at it for a long time. It is a non political party aligned structure. It has been set up to give grass roots voices from rural and remote rural communities across Scotland a chance to have a say in things and make real changes. The timing is perfect in many ways, the independence referendum campaigns saw a massive surge in political engagement, people no longer prepared to leave everything up to Politicians, people talking about what sort of country they want, why re-prioritising core social values against the back drop of deep austerity cuts being imposed from on high.
In recent years community land buy outs, community development companies and trusts, and many other local issue campaigns have made a real difference to the potential for rural communities to survive. However communities just getting on with it and doing things for themselves is not as simple as it could be, there are barriers, support needs and many problems which can only be solved at a higher level. There has been lots of background work to setting up the Scottish Rural Parliament, six key themes have been drawn out to focus the first parliament main event around. These were;
- Rural businesses and employment
- Land use, planning and land reform
- Transport infrastructure
- Protecting our natural assets and adapting to environmental changes
- Broadband and connectivity
- Support for communities to lead with confidence
Health and Social care was also added later to this list.
Many small local events had been held previously. We at KWHG had held one with Applecross community Company on 9th of October in Strathcarron. Delegates for the main Oban event had registered weeks previously, anyone anywhere in rural Scotland could attend. There were between 350 and 400 delegates for a very hectic and jam packed 3 day schedule, across various venues in Oban. Most people in attendance were like ourselves, community activists, charity workers, project workers, volunteers, all passionate and determined to make things better. Ministers from the Scottish Parliament also attended, along side other people from organisations such as HIE, and delegates from other European Rural Parliaments.
The schedule was exhausting, it left little time for networking and reflection. We arrived tired after a long drive to a very windy & wet Oban. After a frustrating time trying to navigate one way road systems, find venues or parking with no mobile phone signal or internet availability, we grabbed a hasty ( but tasty ) lunch at Corran Halls , then dashed off to find a hotel where fringe events were being held that we had booked places on.
Leslie Riddoch and Peter Peacock hosted a very interesting fringe event on ‘Land reform’ it could have gone on for much longer as there was a lot of insightful discussion and information in that room. It was good to hear perspectives from Scandinavia and other countries about how land ownership, tenancy rights, planning rules and local democracy work elsewhere. It was clear that no-one in the room felt that the status quo in Scotland was working for the economy, wellbeing, prosperity or social fabric of rural Scotland.
Thursday evening we gathered at the Oban Atlantis leisure centre which was the main venue for the event and is a local social enterprise company. This was the official opening and dinner. The speeches were interspersed with cultural performances. The SRP is not just about raising rural voices but also to celebrate our culture. We were very tired and keen to head back to the hotel, but the evenings performances were in fact very inspiring and well worth the late night.
Friday 7th. The speakers started at 8.30am !
The first was MSP Richard Lochhead. Followed by a controversial talk from Dr Carol Craig about ‘happiness’ indexes showing better quality of life in rural areas. many speakers from the floor disagreed and felt that rural deprivation is hidden and underestimated. We then heard from Anneli Kana about the Estonian village movement.
The rest of the morning was full of many more workshop streams across the various venues. Information from all of these was being collated and gathered to be put back to us by the final day of the event.
after lunch the programme appeared to be less intense, it was an ‘Open space’ session, which was intriguing as none of us were sure what to expect of this.
It was all explained to us by speakers and diagrams around the room. It is a means of people from the floor deciding and prioritising the subjects to be discussed. We were given the choices; to host a workshop on any burning question we chose, to attend any of the workshops, to be a ‘bumble bee’ and buzz from one workshop to another – the principle here was that if you could learn or contribute nothing, simply get up and move on. We could also choose to be a ‘butterfly’ and just float around or rest or listen. It sounded strange until the microphone was opened up. People got up wrote on sticky notes what they wanted to host a session on, ( local democracy, housing, using the sea more for transport, keeping young people in communities, arts, etc etc ) , they announced their name & topic to everyone, then placed their sticky note on the wall where it was allocated to a table or a room. When the spaces were all full up everyone drifted off to join in discussions which interested them. Some very intense conversations were had. Each workshop drafted up some action points, who, when, and what to be done to take things forward. At the end of the afternoon there was a general feedback session about lessons learned from the format of the ‘Open Space’ . It was a very good way of opening things up to see what issues were important to everyone, if people weren’t engaged or interested in one, then there would simply be no-one attend, nothing happen and people went instead to where they were interested.
Friday night. Oban gathering hall. more speeches, and the presentation of the Rural innovator awards. The shortlisted projects had outlined their work the night before, Everyone deserved to win, you can see the speeches here. Stramash won the award for their excellent work with young people & outdoor learning.
Our small group were all too exhausted to stay and enjoy the dancing for long!
Saturday morning, was another early start and rather intense session, a few talks and Q&A sessions led on without a break and speakers were not let off lightly from the floor. It was clear that people had a lot to talk about and are not content with light answers or just empty talk. The event overall was invigorating and inspirational but certainly wasn’t self congratulatory or passive. There is a passion for positive change in Scotland’s rural areas, and with two bills currently before Scottish government, the communities empowerment bill and land reform bill 2014, there is opportunity for things to be done differently. Delegates then heard from Peter Peacock who had been up all night collating all the information from the previous days. His excellent summary was less controversial and seemed to be what everyone wanted to hear. There were a lot of questions as to how to precede in technical terms, who forms the committee, what membership structures will be in place etc. all of this will be brought back to the table by next spring. It is proposed that the Parliament will take place on a two yearly basis , but with lots of activity in between. There is lots more information on the website, and you too can get involved and have a say in things that matter to all of us. These three days were exhausting but very worth while. It is important that projects such as ours and all the people who work so hard to make a difference in small villages and remote places, are recognised as having something important to contribute to the bigger picture.