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Councillor unhappy with 'threatening' tone used by Caithness road campaign group

By Alan Hendry

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Councillor Willie Mackay says Caithness Roads Recovery must accept there is 'no quick fix'.
Councillor Willie Mackay says Caithness Roads Recovery must accept there is 'no quick fix'.

A Caithness councillor has taken issue with the "threatening" tone adopted by campaigners who are demanding action to fix the county's potholed roads.

Councillor Willie Mackay responded to recent statements by Caithness Roads Recovery (CRR) by insisting elected members are doing their utmost to address the issue and don't deserve to be "slated" on social media.

Accusing the group of being "out of touch", he argued that critical comments aimed at councillors will do little to encourage potential candidates at this year's local authority election.

Councillor Mackay challenged CRR co-founder Iain Gregory to "do the decent thing" and put his own name forward at the council ballot box – while warning that it would take a "magic wand" to conjure up the sum of money CRR says is needed to get the roads fully repaired.

Councillor Mackay says he is well aware of the condition of local roads as a high-mileage driver, having served the farming community for more than 50 years through his work in cattle breeding services and having been involved in local voluntary events for over 20 years.

He was elected to Highland Council in 2007 and now represents the Wick and East Caithness ward while holding the title of Provost of Wick.

CRR was founded in February 2021 and has lobbied Highland Council, local politicians, the Scottish and UK governments and other bodies. Mr Gregory has argued that about £20 million needs to be invested in Caithness roads.

Councillor Mackay took exception to a recent comment by Mr Gregory in a Caithness Courier feature, shared on social media, in which the CRR co-founder said: “Our elected representatives would do well to remember that we all have votes."

Councillor Mackay said: “Who do you think you are, Mr Gregory? This to me is a blatantly threatening tone of voice and an insult with our local authority election coming up on Thursday, May 5.

"What do you think you are saying on your continuing roads campaign? Stay away from the ballot box? Or stand back and let others have a go at representing the communities?

"Well, Mr Gregory, why don’t you do the decent thing and put your name forward first as a potential candidate?"

Councillor Mackay added that if Mr Gregory were to do so, and be successful, he could expect to be challenged the day after the election count to "get out that magic wand and show where that pot of gold is, where that £20 million is coming from to restore our roads".

Highland Council workers repairing potholes in Union Street, Wick, in November.
Highland Council workers repairing potholes in Union Street, Wick, in November.

Councillor Mackay acknowledged that the condition of the roads is "the biggest two-year talking point around Caithness", adding: "I would be the first to accept that we have a crisis on our hands – but it's a crisis that we as elected councillors are doing our best to address, and we do not deserve such criticism from a pressure group who are out of touch with the situation."

CRR, he maintained, would do well to "sit down and support the current elected members in looking for answers – accepting for a start that there is no quick fix".

But he added: "Praise where praise is due and well done to our roads team who have, with limited resources, materials and funding, done a lot of very good repairs.

"I am proud of the monthly roads meetings we hold with Highland Council roads officers set up by my ward colleague, Councillor Raymond Bremner. These meetings give an opportunity to all councillors to see and understand our challenge in recovering the roads infrastructure.

"Capital investment will continue and is committed ahead, with a review pending so that we receive best value return on investment.

"The challenges are huge and we all need to work together, not be slated as councillors on social media pages. For me, critical comments aimed at councillors don't encourage any enthusiasm from local people who might like to stand as candidates."

Mr Gregory said: "Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as being 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'.

"One of the benefits of democracy is that the people have a perfect right to hold their elected leaders to account. Caithness Roads Recovery was set up in February 2021 because of deep concerns held by many people about the appalling state of our roads – roads, incidentally, which have been collapsing for many years.

"Had action been taken – and it should have been – then there would have been no need for CRR."

Mr Gregory went on: "If anyone is out of touch, it certainly isn't CRR.

"I have had many approaches from different political organisations, and countless citizens, asking me to stand for election. I will consider this, but I may decide to expand and develop CRR into an even more robust and challenging organisation.

"On that note, I do hope that others who may wish to launch campaign groups are not deterred from so doing as a result of Councillor Mackay's comments. I certainly won't be.

"In the meantime I shall simply refer to George Orwell's famous quote: 'Free speech is my right to say what you don't want to hear.'"

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