Ness - Tolsta road
The STEP Project Gauging Of Public Opinion ( July/August, 2001) On The Ness/Tolsta Road Link Proposal
More than eighty years ago Lord Leverhulme set out to develop and bring prosperity to Lewis and Harris. He did not spare himself in that into all his activities to that end he poured his boundless energy, commercial and financial expertise, drive and enthusiasm. Not only that but, generously, he drew on his personal fortune to bring about his grand design for the Island.
Part of his plan was to improve the transport framework and, in so doing, to provide much needed employment by building roads. This included the Grimshader/Tarbert road and Ness/Tolsta road links.
There was massive support for his plans. In October, 1919 the men of Tolsta, most of whom were employed on the Tolsta side of building the road which had been started in April 1919, at a village meeting pledged their wholehearted support for Lord Leverhulme. At a meeting on 14th. October, 1919 at Port of Ness there was not one dissenting voice to a motion deploring it that objections to Leverhulme’s schemes were jeopardising “the bright future ahead” and at the time of the Coll and Gress Farms land raids 9000 Lewis people signed their support for Leverhulme’s schemes and against the actions of the 30 or so land raiders.
Sadly, though, Lord Leverhulme became disillusioned and he eventually turned his back on the island because of a combination of factors. These were a slump in the business world in the spring of 1920, a £2 million overdraft undetected due to an unbelievable oversight in the accounts of the Niger Company owned by Lever Brothers, the land raids and to resistance and obstacles placed in his way by the then Scottish Secretary.
When Lord Leverhulme abandoned his plans the Scottish Office, in an attempt to alleviate the intense poverty and hardship then prevailing and also, perhaps, out of remorse, gave £35,000, a vast sum in those days, to continue with road building works. For reasons unknown none of this money went towards the Ness/Tolsta road.
The Grimshader road link had been completed before Lord Leverhulme closed down all his public works. This highly useful road brought Grimshader 5.2 miles closer to Stornoway. Crossbost and Ranish were also brought closer to the town and the link thus formed, if one takes it as beginning at the Tarbert/Leurbost road junction, after leaving these villages it meanders through the south Arnish Moor and, in traversing this territory, there is no evidence that it has harmed what may be described as a “wilderness” in the same way as has been the Ness/Tolsta moor. The road brought moor and lochans within reach of many to whom these aspects of nature would otherwise be denied. The moor is not littered along its route with abandoned vehicles as those in opposition to a Ness/Tolsta road predict nor is the landscape the anthill of people they say it would be if the development were to proceed. The road being there has enabled a NOSWA water station to be sited by a loch to meet domestic need in that area. In short the link loop road makes North Lochs more accessible, in countless ways it is a valuable asset which in no way despoils the area AND IT EXISTS.
The Ness/Tolsta road does not exist yet it could be every bit as valuable an asset, if not more so, than the Grimshader road link/loop.
In the 80 years or so since it was first begun the pages of the Stornoway Gazette have been peppered with letters and references to the Ness/Tolsta road idea and also to questions about it being raised in Parliament. So what is the present situation with regard to public opinion on the Ness/Tolsta road link ?
In July/August 2001 Iomairt Nis, the Ness Development Company, with assistance from the STEP Project, set out to answer that question. The field worker was Jennifer Campbell, a Glasgow University second year student, ( nighean John Angus Aonghais Shonaidh Bhig ) from Port of Ness.
A simple questionnaire and copies of information leaflets giving the historical background to this controversial project, together with reasons for and against that have been stated over the years, were posted, with reply paid envelopes, to EVERY household in Ness and Tolsta. Royal Mail returned any that were addressed to unoccupied premises. The questionnaire had For and Against boxes to be ticked for being in favour or otherwise of the Ness/Tolsta road idea and if against a road being built whether a cycle track was favoured. Persons in households responding were asked to indicate their ages in the age bands 18-24, 25-40, 40-60 and over 60.
As far as is known this was the largest sampling of public opinion of this long standing proposed development in the communities of Tolsta and Ness. A total of 777 people recorded their choice in the issue.
The figures emerging from the survey return, distilled down to show the number of people over the age of 18 who indicated their choice in the issue were :
|Ness District FOR||466||86%|
|Ness District AGAINST||75||14%|
|Tolsta District FOR||127||64%|
|Tolsta District AGAINST||72||36%|
|Other areas FOR||29||78%|
|Other areas AGAINST||8||22%|
To the question in the survey form “If you are against a road being built would you prefer a cycle track instead between Tolsta and Ness?” the response was negligible, so small that it is of no significance.
In North Tolsta there are about 400 individuals over the age of 18 years and about 130 occupied houses. Therefore the rate of return, in attempting to gauge public opinion, appears to be close to the national trend which was that of all those eligible to vote at the June, 2001 National Election 59% did so. However, the number in favour is distinctly down on the overall figure and also on those in the other sections. This is very much changed from the position in October, 1919 as shown above.
From the data gleaned in the survey it may be deduced that there is more than one reason for the fall in the numbers in Tolsta in favour of the project. However, it is probably safe to say that the main reason might be fears about the increase of through traffic in the village. If that is so then it is a valid concern but with imagination, modern planning and civil engineering techniques, goodwill and boldness that difficulty can definitely be overcome.
The result of this gauging of public opinion in the locality of the proposed development is very clearly that of those who returned the survey forms the majority want the road link to be made. The majority is a substantial one : it is a resounding YES for the development and those who added comments in support of their standpoint highlighted its wealth generating potential and that it would arrest and reverse the alarming population decline in the area.
History confirms the long standing need and support for the road project idea and now this survey underlines it that the local need and support is still there. It is now incumbent on the thirty councillors of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to give serious consideration to this issue : they owe it to themselves not to be bracketed with the thirty or so land raiders whose actions finally so disillusioned and discouraged Lord Leverhulme despite the signed support of 9000 Lewis people. Will the councillors not now lift their sights to the heights and from there see far into the future to the benefits and riches that this much needed development will bestow on this area and on the whole of the Western Isles. Years from now let it be said of the Council, “Is n’t it great that they had the courage and foresight to do it.” instead of bemoaning, as we now do, the inaction and malaise that has characterised this issue for such a long time.
Understandably the local Comhairle nan Eilean Siar councillors, the Tolsta, Port of Ness and Dell Wards representatives, are hesitant about promoting the project within the Council and at Transportation Committee level where the first moves must be made if anything is ever to come of it. With so many competing demands for limited Comhairle money they take the view that a great many other things in their Wards must be considered before the Ness/Tolsta road link project. The latest estimate of the cost of the development is in the region of £14 million. In the light of that the view taken by the councillors is a reasonable one because it would not be appropriate that other areas of great need in the Western Isles would be on very slim budgets, for many years into the future, if such a large sum were to be taken from Comhairle funds.
The kind of money required, therefore, must come from the Scottish Executive, the UK Government and from EU funds and the local councillors should, since there is now a clear mandate for it within their Wards, make moves to set up a Group within Council, made up of members and officers, to seek special funding for the project. This is the only way it can be done and with the experience and expertise gained from the funding of the many massive civil engineering projects in the Southern Isles in recent years there is every reason for optimism that the necessary funding may be obtained. The development is clearly wanted by the local electorate and their representatives in Council must now give heed.
K. G. Finlayson.
26th November, 2001