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December 12, 2007

Turnaround in fortunes of unemployment blackspot

Ten years ago, Alness was one of the few areas of the Highlands to appear in the list of the country’s 10% most deprived communities. Thanks to the efforts of local residents, Alness is starting to attract headlines for all the right reasons


The town of Alness, which had a population of 1600 in the early 1960s, saw major changes in the 1970s with the decision to create housing infrastructure for an aluminium smelter at nearby Invergordon and a major oil fabrication facility at Nigg at the entrance to the Cromarty Firth. By the early eighties the town’s population had grown to over 8,000. The population currently stands at 5,100.

The aluminium smelter and the oil fabrication yard both eventually closed leaving Alness with over 25% unemployment, council house voids running at 15%, one fifth of the shops on the High Street boarded up and a public image of a town in decline with a high crime rate and “junkies on each corner”. In a single generation, the town had changed from a quiet local market centre to a place in the 10% most deprived communities in Scotland.

Formed in 1995, Alness Initiative is a group of fourteen people who are representatives from the town’s most active voluntary organisations. The group was formed because local people were concerned that their town had an extremely poor reputation across the whole of the Highlands. Meeting fortnightly since 1995, they produced a shopping list of changes and improvements which the Community thought would be needed to start the process of regeneration in the town. They invited representation from the local authority and the enterprise company to join them to seek a positve step change for the town.

By 2004 the entire shopping list had been achieved. The infrastructural work was funded and carried out by Highland Council and/or Ross & Cromarty Enterprise. However, as shown time and time again in regeneration areas across the country, building new car parks and redesigning the High Street does not build social networks and create a sense of wellbeing or belonging.

The substantial success of the regeneration process in Alness has been the significant input from local volunteers. As an example the High Street redesign was pleasant but it did not attract new businesses – the town’s bad reputation still extended far and wide across the Highlands. However, a new voluntary organisation, the Alness Environmental Group was spawned from Alness Initiative and has become one of the most influential groups in the town. This energetic group of thirty volunteers set about a second transformation of the town centre. They raised money to put up hanging baskets and permanent plantings on the High Street and, growing in confidence, they entered Beautiful Scotland in Bloom – Small Town in 1997 and won their category. The town has gone on to win Britain in Bloom, World in Bloom and many other prestigious awards. In 2006, the town was crowned Britain in Bloom, Champion of Champions and currently features as an environmental tourist destination on Shredded Wheat packets.

Evidence of the rising community spirit can be evidenced by the increase in the number of residents associations which have been established in the period. With the support of the development officer each of the associations has been taking forward their own projects to improve the environment or bringing new facilities such as play parks, holiday play schemes, old folks lunch clubs into their area. All the groups run their activities using volunteers and this is also evidence of the growing community spirit that so many people across the town and social strata volunteer.

That there is a huge house building programme by RSL’s and commercial builders is evidence of the improvement in the quality of life for all people living in the town.

As the strategic planning group for the town, the Initiative was able to become the mechanism for the delivery of the Community Economic Development Programme (a European Objective 1 programme). Through this programme the Initiative was able to employ a development officer and with this offcier support, over £1.5 million has been raised by community groups to implement regeneration projects. These projects included: renovating and/or extending Averon Leisure Centre; West Alness Community Centre; Alness Golf Club; Alness Heritage Centre; Kensal Community Hall; installing renewable heating systems in most of these community run buildings. Many environmental renewal schemes; community art programmes; family learning projects; a full-time golf professional for the golf club and the purchase of publishing equipment for the production of a monthly newspaper for the town are samples of projects which the community identified. 

Currently, Alness Initiative is the decision-making body for the distribution of the towns’ allocation of Scottish Executive money from the Community Regeneration Fund (CRF). Although there has been a remarkable transformation of the town a few pockets still qualify for CRF as they appear in the top 15% of the most deprived communities in Scotland.  

Two Initiative representatives also sit on the Ross & Cromarty Development Partnership, a partnership which has represenatatives from all the statutory agencies.

In 1992/3 a massive community consultation exercise was carried out and two further community consultation meetings have been held to ensure that the Initiative is focusing on the right issues for the town. Five months ago a new shopping list was created.

Such is the success of the town in reducing its carbon footprint Highland & Islands Community Energy Company recently held a seminar open to community groups from Highland and the afternoon session was spent visiting the renewable energy projects in the Alness area. 

The growing awareness of the town for “Good News” stories and an exceptional environment has brought new businesses into the town. Today, unlike many rural small towns, new business spaces are being created despite the presence of Morrison’s and Lidl supermarkets on the outskirts of the town. Indeed in 2004 the shopkeepers on the High Street said they had recorded a 30% increase in turnover and attributed this to the new-look street and the growing reputation of the town as a quality shopping and visitor destination. 

The town is now a major visitor attraction and draws people from all over the world. 

The Initiative has also been recognised by gaining awards such as the Dynamic Place Award, was a finalist in Enterprising Britain 2007 and recently was declared a Winner in the BURA Community Inspired Regeneration.