The original motivation for the discussions about a Fixed Link from Cowal was the belief that the areas in Argyll & Bute under discussion were facing long term population decline and consequent economic threat. Anecdotal and other data at that point would substantiate that belief.
In October 2014, Argyll & Bute Council held an economic summit focussed on population decline in Argyll & Bute. In all 32 counties in Scotland, the forecasts from Scottish Rural College demonstrated that only Western Isles and Argyll & Bute were anticipating overall population decline, with the Argyll & Bute forecast showing a much more severe decline in the working age population. Further studies also showed that Dunoon was almost the worst town with severe economic issues out of 90 Scottish towns studied (Rural Scotland in Focus 2014; Scottish Rural College). This crystallised the issues that the Working Group had been concerned about, and presentations confirmed statistically and convincingly that the concerns the group held were valid. The summit triggered the promise of actions from Scottish and UK Governments, Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) as well as the Council and others. One action from HIE was to implement a study looking at the transport infrastructure of South Argyll & Cowal, with consequent economic impact assessment of a range of options. A further action was the setting up of the Argyll & Bute Economic Forum under the leadership of Nicholas Ferguson CBE.
In March 2015, under the chairmanship of Michael Russell MSP, a stakeholder group to advise the Fixed Link WG was formed and had its first meeting. A second meeting of the stakeholder group was held in November 2015; a public consultation was endorsed by this stakeholder meeting.
The Cowal Fixed Link Working Group very conscious that existing ferry connections between Inverclyde and Cowal / Dunoon and Rosneath are sensitive issues and that there is strong public sentiment that these connections need improving in a very short time frame. The Group has discussed these issues and makes the following points:
- Nothing in these proposals regarding a fixed link or links should divert Government and Council focus from an urgent response to the demand for improved ferry links to Inverclyde. These ferry issues are real and need resolution within months if not sooner.
- While a fixed link, if provided, would inevitably cause displacement issues with passenger and ferry traffic potentially moving from ferries to other transport options, the Group strongly feels that these issues could be well in the future and should not deter or defer the immediate consideration of fixed link options and future economic benefit.
The starting point for the Working Group is the clear evidence that the Dunoon & Cowal area is in long term economic decline, despite having a reasonable ferry services to Gourock. One way to characterise the situation is that the status quo for Dunoon and Cowal is on-going overall decline, despite investments in facilities (Queens Hall, etc.) and some new business activity. The key economic activities in the area are tourism, forestry and a few small businesses. Dunoon & Cowal are not alone in Argyll or in Scotland to be experiencing this decline but, uniquely, this area has the opportunity to grow due to its proximity to Glasgow. Cowal is closer to Glasgow Airport than Stirling; the only reason why this area is not considered an attractive area to live is the expense and perceived uncertainty of commuter access. This has three results, whose combined effect, are contributing to the economic scenario:
- People working in Inverclyde, Paisley or Glasgow do not consider the area for living despite the superb environmental benefits, access to country side, sporting options, quality schooling, security, etc.
- Locals who live in the area and find employment in the central belt are increasingly considering moving due to costs and perceived uncertainty of travel.
- Employment opportunities in this area are not taken up by people in the central belt or, if they are, people do not choose to move here due to lack of facilities resulting from economic decline. This means that, if there is transport disruption, key services, such as the school, hospital departments, banks, etc. have to close.
An economic assessment of any fixed link option should, therefore, bear in mind the totality of the transport demand in the South Argyll / Cowal area. Taking as a model the Borders Railway Campaign, any fixed link project should be seen as an economic regeneration undertaking and not just as an improvement of transport links. Flexible options would therefore be preferred that could accommodate all types of traffic. These include, among others:
- Goods and Services (Freight)
- Hospital and medical access
The Working Group is conscious also that, whatever the investment in a fixed link is required, the current population of Dunoon & Cowal (circa 12,000) will make it more difficult to justify. Therefore, the Group sees this project in two parallel tracks, executed simultaneously:
- The Fixed Link
- The 50K Target – actions to drive up the population in the broader South Argyll / Bute area to around the 50,000 mark.
In addition, there will be a further economic stimulus across the whole County of Argyll, particularly if the spurs (See Crossings 5 and 6) are built as a second phase. One of the issues affecting development, for instance, of Kintyre / South Argyll, is that the current roads run North / South principally on the shores of lochs. This Fixed Link project opens up the possibility of East / West road and / or rail links, hugely reducing transport times and costs to the western areas of Argyll.
Cultural / Environmental Concerns
One area the working group would insist is considered in any further feasibility studies is the effect on the culture and character of the areas to be serviced by a fixed link, including social inclusivity. Lack of employment opportunities results in young people leaving the area and an increasing aging population. One result from a fixed link would be to reverse this process and produce a more balanced, socially inclusive society. However, it will be important as the project develops, to ensure that the positive environmental and cultural benefits that the area possesses are maintained. One concern raised about a road link, as distinct from rail, is that it would provide 24 / 7 access to the Cowal / Rosneath peninsulas. Would this change the characteristics of the area such as security, pace of life, etc.? Would the route of any link affect the visual or other environmental aspects e.g. noise?
The WG would want to see included in the detailed feasibility studies a project, such as a global architectural competition, where major architectural firms could be invited to submit designs for how the broader area could grow to a population of around 50,000 without damaging the current positive benefits. A key component of this would be to identify a strategic vision for the future role of the Cowal area; previous roles such as a historic site or tourist destination will form elements of a future strategy but a new compelling vision is needed; an environmentally friendly area with secure, fast commuting capability to Glasgow has to be a major part of any new focus.
The vision of the Working Group for Dunoon, Cowal and the broader South Argyll & Bute area is a number of vibrant communities with a population of around 50,000, with a significant commuting element, substantial small business presence, re-located Government departments and academic institutions, underpinned by the traditional tourism, food and drink, forestry and heritage activities.