Stirring of the angry Isles: Their council lost millions in the BCCI collapse. Now, facing huge tax rises, Western Islanders have risen in public protest, reports James Cusick

James Cusick
Saturday 17 April 1993 23:02

THE SABBATH and savings do not mix in the religious Western Isles. At 11.59 and 59 seconds last night the Dial-a-Saving hotline in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis ended its three-day run. Dissident councillor Peter MacKibbin offered callers two minutes to make suggestions on how the local council could save money. But any flash of inspiration at midnight was too late.

It was an extraordinary week in the Western Isles. The islanders endured relatively peacefully the public fiasco of their council losing the pounds 23m it had invested with the collapsed Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

But their patience snapped when they learned how much more the new council tax would cost them than the community charge. Pound for pound, band for band, the islands have the highest local-government tax level in Scotland.

For Hector Macauley, an 82- year-old crofter from the remote village of Balallan, the week marked a first. 'There are two buses a day into Stornoway. Last Saturday I took one and was there with 3,000 others.' It was the first protest he had ever taken part in - a mass demonstration and angry meeting in the town hall.

Before the BCCI losses, the Western Isles had the lowest poll tax in Scotland. Then, 21,000 people over 18 had to pay. Under the new tax, the council has to raise the money from 13,000 properties. The value of the great majority puts them in band A, the lowest level of the new tax.

The council recognises that the poll tax was set too low and it faces a deficit. It is legally required to service the BCCI debt, wants to establish a safety-net fund, and is still pushing for some growth in services. The old poll tax was pounds 180. In many cases the council tax will be approaching four times higher.

The complex accounting is lost on Mr Macauley and many like him. This weekend, using wooden stakes and a stone hammer, he is building a temporary sheep pen. Tomorrow, with his two sons, he will begin bringing his sheep down from winter quarters on the hills overlooking his croft on the shores of Loch Erisort. 'We have a simple and hard life here,' he said. 'I've just no idea how we are going to pay this kind of money.'

There is a calm anger when he says, with a definite nod of his head: 'I think, what do you call them, the Fraud Squad, yes, that's who we need here.'

Mr Macauley was not the only senior citizen to protest. In the town hall John Matheson, aged 78, marched towards the stage, thrust his house keys towards the convener of the council and said: 'You might as well take them, I can't afford to stay there. I'll be better off in an old folk's home.' He threw the keys on to the stage.

Tomorrow the council meets, ostensibly to discuss the latest stage of the Harris Tweed Bill (legislation to enhance the status of the islands' world-famous industry). But the convener, Donald Macleod, now expects manoeuvring to force a renewed debate on the council tax.

The expectation is that a lower rate will be set. The 3,000 demonstrators, one-sixth of the islands' population, will claim victory.

But what have they won? Mr Macleod said there was widespread ignorance in the islands of the council's position. 'People don't read what comes through their letter box.'

For BCCI is not the only reason for the increases - pounds 2.5m a year for 30 years will take care of that debt. But pounds 6m a year goes on roads, pounds 6.8m on social work and pounds 26m on education, half of it in pay. The forecast deficit at 31 March is pounds 2.06m. 'The deficit money was not lost. We've spent it on the community over the years, we would have had to spend it now.'

The Government provides 95 per cent of the Western Isles' income, some pounds 60m. It raises pounds 5.5m from its citizens. Much of the huge rise in tax is attributable to previous years of low taxation and higher spending. In the aftermath of BCCI, economic realism has caught up.

Sitting behind his desk in the modern council office complex that some locals call the Taj Mahal, Mr Macleod reluctantly admitted that he had expected the new tax level to spark protest.

But, he said: 'Islanders, by and large, are decent, honest people; people who do not like to be in debt. Many will pay the tax.' But will they pay, whatever level is set? An embarrassed smile follows, but no answer. If the tax is cut tomorrow, services will be cut.

So far the Presbyterian Church has kept a low profile. That may soon change. The Rev Murdo Macleod, of the Free Church of Scotland in Stornoway, said he could never advocate breaking the law. 'But what if people cannot pay. What if real hardship is being created?' His manse is one of only six properties in the high- paying bands G and H. His tax bill will jump from around pounds 300 to near pounds 1,000.

In recent years there have been head-on clashes between Sabbatarians and the moderates. Sunday is rigorously observed as the Lord's Day in the Western Isles. Nothing moves, not even the ferry services.

But united on the rally platform last week were John Murdo Morrison, a Tarbert hotelier and fierce campaigner against ferry services running on Sunday, and his long-time enemy, Councillor MacKibbin, the public face of the pro-Sunday ferry lobby. It is the first time they have agreed on anything for years.

Given that kind of unity, 'from the Butt to Barra', it is no surprise that the council is quickly redoing its arithmetic.

(Photographs omitted)

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