THE idea of a “local issue” in the Highland council area is something of a contradiction.

Issues which might have a large impact on people living in Wick – such as the closure of the New Look store in April – will matter little to someone living 200 miles away in Portree.

The area covered by Highland Council encompasses some 25,600 square kilometres – about 25% larger than the entirety of Wales (which has 22 councils of its own).

Low population doesn’t account for its size. Highland is the seventh most populous local authority in Scotland. The island councils (Na h-Eileanan Siar, Orkney, and Shetland) only have around 25,000 people each, while central belt Clackmannanshire has around 51,000.

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The problem with such a massive “local” authority is that some of its 74 councillors may find themselves living literally hours away from the area they are claiming to represent.

For one example, look no further than the Scottish Tories.

The party had a wildly successful election in 2017, returning 10 councillors. This was up from zero, a number on which the party had sat comfortably since their failure in the 1999 vote.

The Conservatives are unlikely to drop back down to zero, but are certainly wary of losing a few seats as partygate and other scandals infect every aspect of political life.

Their current Highland council group leader, Andrew Jarvie, represents Inverness South. The Conservatives’ website says he is the director at the local Citizens Advice Bureau, which is based on the city’s Union Street.

However, Jarvie is running for re-election in Wick, which is 120 miles away.

The Tories currently have a councillor in the Wick and East Caithness ward, named Andrew Sinclair. But this time around, Sinclair is running in the Inverness South ward.

The switcheroo may help the Tory group leader hold onto a seat in the council, with the Wick seat looking a safer bet for the Conservatives than Inverness, but it will do little to help local people with local representation.

“The people of Wick and East Caithness like to know their candidate, like to know that they’re local and like to know that they’ve got local knowledge,” Raymond Bremner, the SNP group leader and a councillor for that area, says.

“I’m not too sure what Andrew Jarvie thinks he’s bringing to the table up here, but it’s up to the electorate to consider.”

Pippa Hadley, a Greens councillor and candidate, said it was part of a “disturbing pattern of people that aren’t local standing for a local position”.

Pointing to her own ward, Badenoch and Strathspey, Hadley says: “There’s a huge difference between the two. If you live here, you know that. But if you’ve come from somewhere else you probably don’t have a clue.”

The vast distances and relatively small population centres covered by Highland Council may go some way to explaining the dominance of independents in the area.

The administration is currently run by independents (in coalition with Labour and the LibDems), the largest group since the first Highland Regional Council election in 1974. Their dominance has been sliding however, with the SNP returning 22 councillors to the independents’ 28 in 2017.

Hadley thinks the direction of travel is likely to continue in this election: “We’re seeing quite a few independents stepping down. People that have held onto their seats for the past two or three or four terms.

“Where we’re seeing a large changeover, with tried and trusted candidates [leaving], you’re more likely to see people go towards a party. I think this time round there may be a play of balance, whereas before it’s been definitively independent.”

Bremner’s SNP group are standing 23 candidates this time around, and looking to return almost every one. “That would put us in a position where we’d be able to have discussions with other groups in terms of an administration,” he says.

BUT whoever manages to form an administration on Highland Council after May 5, there will be a few huge challenges in front of them.

Despite the size of the council area, two problems are almost ubiquitous: housing and transport. A third, staffing a business, is intrinsically linked with those.

The quality of the roads is a “Highland-wide issue”, Bremner says. He adds that even when the current administration has promised to spend on road repair, “no matter what they’ve committed to spend, they didn’t actually spend it”.

Unreliable and inconsistent public transport links can also see hours added onto a normal worker’s commute, or make taking a job too far from home more of a burden than a benefit. Hadley says: “Without a car, people can’t really exist.”

But as fuel prices soar and the cost-of-living bites, personal transport is becoming less and less affordable.

And moving closer to places of employment is not always possible. “[In Badenoch and Strathspey] what we are seeing is a complete lack of ability to rent a house,” Hadley says.

The demand for property for the rental market means that any is snapped up almost as soon as it goes up for sale. Supply would have to increase exponentially to meet demand. “You can’t build your way out of the housing crisis. You just can’t,” Hadley says.

House prices are skyrocketing, and while landlords might get £600-£800 a month to rent to a local, they could in some cases be looking at thousands of pounds every week for the same property on the short-term let holiday market.

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Despite some of the councillors in the Highlands having vested interests in the short-term let market, a system of controls, similar to the one brought in in Edinburgh, is “definitely on the council agenda”, Bremner says.

“But one size doesn’t fit all,” he goes on. “It needs to have flexibility and the communities need to determine that level of flexibility. It would also need to be future-proofed.

“Here in Caithness we have void houses [empty properties that are available to rent], but the situation might not be that in five or ten years’ time.”

How can councillors making money letting multiple properties properly represent people struggling to afford to rent even one? Can locals be given a voice by someone living more than 100 miles away? As big as Highland council is, these issues are bigger still.

Scotland’s ballots will be cast in the local elections on May 5. Between now and polling day, The National will profile EVERY ONE of the country’s 32 local authorities. Click HERE to see all of those published so far.