Inverness: the new Shangri-La?

It's the fastest-growing city in western Europe - a dazzling beacon of new opportunity and enterpris

"Vibrant, exciting and cosmopolitan. Fabulous mountain scenery. A very low crime rate, and the schools are excellent. Without doubt a great place to live and work . . ." Stuart Black, area director at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, sounds genuinely excited, as well he might. Inverness, the unofficial capital of the Highlands, is now the fastest-growing city in western Europe. Scotland's new Shangri-La is expanding at a dizzying pace.

The A9, the longest and most dangerous road in Scotland, stretches from the central belt to the Highlands, taking you through some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring scenery imaginable - gnarled mountain ranges, pine forests, castles. Beyond Perth is a desolate and sparsely inhabited world until, roughly 120 miles further north, the road climbs steadily, curves to the right and there, somewhat out of the blue, is Inverness.

In 2001, the population was 51,000. In the six years since, it has climbed to more than 60,000, and there are plans to double it over the next three decades. In many ways, it is an extra ordinary success story in an area where depopulation is the norm. Two new towns, a huge business park and a new university campus are planned; a £20m culture and conference redevelopment is nearing completion; numerous cultural festivals are taking place; major golf courses are being designed; the airport is on course to reach its target of a million passengers a year. The city has a booming healthcare industry, boasting one of the world's leading centres for diabetes research.

You would expect a director of Highlands development to paint it as a picture of paradise, but there are many others who agree with him, es pecially the large number of "downshifters" and retirees who have swapped life in the south-east of England for the far north of Scotland.

On the outskirts of Inverness, plush Wisteria Lane-style housing developments have appeared. Spacious three- and four-bedroomed detached homes, which would cost millions in the south-east, are being snapped up for between £250,000 and £300,000.

Stuart and Alayna Robins moved to Inverness three years ago after 20 years in London working in the City and the civil service, respectively. They were able to sell up and, with the proceeds, buy a much bigger property, start a schoolwear clothing company and still have cash left over. "We got sick of the rat race," says Stuart, 42. "We got sick of the long hours, the constant commuting, not being able to drive anywhere, constantly being stuck in traffic jams."

Alayna, who is two years younger, loves the different pace of life. "I regularly go down to London to see friends and I can't wait to come back. My friends are all stressed out and depressed. Here you get the best of both worlds. It has the economy of a city, but maintains the feel of a town."

Indeed, the cobblestoned city centre is quaint, compact and, apart from some awful 1960s town-centre development, a singularly attractive place. The waterfront on the broad and silvery River Ness is undergoing a major revamp. The west bank is lined with a host of stylish restaurants, which might not seem at all out of the ordinary, until you remember that, until recently, the concept of "dining out" in Inverness amounted to little more than eating a fish supper on a bench after a night in the pub.

The new inhabitants

So change has come, but it is not just those from south of the border that regard this as their utopia. Although English incomers account for a significant proportion of the new inhabitants, the vast bulk of the influx is made up of im migrants from eastern Europe, mainly Poland. At least 5,000 (some say as many as 8,000) have flocked to these parts since 2004, when the Scottish Executive launched an aggressive marketing campaign.

Many of them are qualified professionals: teachers, engineers, social workers. The unemployment rate in Poland, however, is running at just under 20 per cent, and white-collar workers who manage to find work there earn only about £120 a month. Highly skilled Poles can earn more in a week at a Highland fish factory, on a building site or as a cleaner than they do in a month in schools and offices back home. And, despite their qualifications, that is exactly the sort of work that many are doing. The majority are here for the short term, earning as much as they can before they return home.

There are exceptions. Monika Gajda and Gab riela Cabaj, both 28 and both graduates, are employed by Orion Engineering, one of the world's leading oil-industry recruitment agencies. They are planning to settle long term in Inverness. Monika says the quality of life is far higher here. "I sometimes miss big-city life and the weather could be better, but here we don't have to worry about having enough money to pay bills and buy food."

Gabriela joined her husband, who is also from Poland, in Inverness two years ago. "I wouldn't like to live anywhere else," she says. "Life in general is much easier here than in Poland. It's a very nice and pretty area and Scottish people treat foreigners very well."

But naturally one person's heaven is another's hell. There are many native Invernessians who lament the loss of their old way of life. There is no doubt that the population boom has brought problems and there is, at least among a minority, a simmering resentment towards those who have relocated here.

Local people call this "Tescotown", such is the dominance of the retailer. With no competition from Asda or Sainsbury's, 51 pence out of every £1 spent on food shopping in the High-land region goes into a Tesco till. There are three superstores already in the city, and only after fierce protest have planners refused permission for a fourth.

This is the kind of place where people go home for lunch, resulting in the previously unknown problem of gridlock four times a day. The roads are often seething with traffic and the infrastructure is urgently in need of investment and modernisation. Road and rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh are appalling, and with only one main road through the city, a journey that used to take five minutes can now take an hour.

Drugs and homelessness

Crime has also increased. For the first time, the police are threatening to use dispersal orders to tackle the growing antisocial behaviour problem in some of the more run-down parts of the city. Homelessness is another issue. Figures released in February showed a 200 per cent increase in the number of people living on the street. Although the council has a policy that requires 25 per cent of any new housing development to be made available for social and affordable accommodation, there is a sense that this is too little, too late. The manager of one housing association told me that, for the 11 new flats he had just been given, he had a waiting list of 400.

Drugs are another problem. Dealers from northern England, aware that Scotland's main cities are saturated, see the Highlands as an area of huge potential. Rarely a day passes with out news of a drugs bust at the bus station or on the A9.

There is also concern over the influx of Poles. Zosia Wierzbowicz-Fraser is a teacher at a secondary school in the city and the founder of the Inverness Polish Association. She is dismayed at what she sees as the gross exploitation, in many cases, of young Polish workers and feels many have been lured to the Highlands under false pretences.

She recounts horror stories of Poles sleeping in the bus station, under bushes, and five or six to a caravan, and claims there are unscrupulous landlords charging ex orbitant rents for dorm-style accommodation. "Some of these young Poles," she says, "are living like pigs."

Wierzbowicz-Fraser also says many highly qualified Poles who thought their skills would be put to good use have ended up doing menial jobs. "Poles will do the jobs that no one else wants to do," she says wearily. "They are excellent workers and they are so desperate for money, for a better standard of living, that they will never complain.

"They work the extra hours, the long hours, because, even at the minimum wage here, it is 37 per cent higher than in Poland."

There are, she says, some excellent employers who provide accommodation and language assistance for staff, but they are few and she fears that unless urgent action is taken to address this it will become a big issue.

But perhaps the biggest problem for Inver-ness and the Highlands as a whole is one that is rarely talked about: the stubbornly high and rising suicide rate among men. Young and middle-aged men in this area are three times more likely to take their own lives than their coun terparts in London. New Scottish Executive figures, published at the beginning of this month, showed that the male suicide rate across Scotland as a whole had risen by 22 per cent over a 15-year period, with the Highlands and the Western Isles suffering a disproportionately high rate.

End of a way of life

The researchers blame isolation, alcohol and drug abuse. Other experts have suggested the death of the old Highland way of life. Not long ago, women here raised the children while men supported their families as farmers or fishermen. Such traditional industries have all but disappeared, however, and it is often women who support the family, working in seasonal service industries, while men struggle to find employment and spend long periods on the dole.

There is also the fact that Highland men are notoriously proud and self-reliant. They would never dream of visiting their GP if they were feeling anxious or lonely, and it is still seen as a sign of weakness for a man to talk about emotional difficulties or to say he needs a helping hand.

Drugs and alcohol are undoubtedly another huge factor. Much of Highland life centres on drink, and there is a well-known local say- ing about man's relationship with the bottle: You've got an alcohol problem only if you're drinking two bottles a day instead of one. The most recent figures show that there were 50 suicides last year, and many more attempts.

John Burnside is the reluctant founder of the Inverness Suicide Awareness Group. A former psychiatric nurse-turned-publican, he lost his son, Richard, who was 36, to suicide three years ago. In the three months leading up to his death, two of Richard's closest friends, Ivor Robertson, who was 35, and Mark Thow, who was 40, had taken their own lives.

All three had known each other since primary school and had played for a local pub football team since 1998. They lived within walking distance of each other in Hilton, a housing estate on the outskirts of the city. Their deaths stunned Inverness. At Mark's funeral, Richard turned to his father and gave him some unexpected words of reassurance.

"Dad," he said, "I know I've caused you and Mum a lot of problems over the years, but that is one thing you don't have to worry about - because I would never dream of doing that. I couldn't."

Burnside put a comforting arm around his son and thought, "Thank God", because he didn't believe that he or his wife, Edna, would be able to cope. Three months later Richard, too, had hanged himself. Like Mark and Ivor, he left no note, so those left behind have had to fathom their own explanations.

His father says: "'Why' is the hardest question to answer. Richard had had long spells of unemployment and a painful relationship break-up. Drink was also a problem, but you never expect this."

These days, Burnside devotes his time to raising funds for suicide awareness and support. "Inverness used to be this lovely royal burgh where everyone knew everyone else and always had time to talk," he says. "That has gone. Everyone's rushing about trying to keep up with each other and feeling like a failure if they don't have the big house, the big car and all the material trappings.

"That is the story I'm hearing more and more often - our young men and women feeling like failures."

As the editor of the Inverness Courier told me: "This is no longer Brigadoon." To some, that is a blessing. To others, it is a curse.

Lorna Martin is Scotland editor of the Observer

See also What does Scotland mean to you? - a selection of interviews with Scottish personalities.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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