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John Swinney explains why Perthshire is the perfect training ground to run Scotland

The first minister described his constituency as ‘the very beating heart of Scotland’ - why is that the case?

First Minister John Swinney. Image: PA.
First Minister John Swinney. Image: PA.

John Swinney reckons representing Perthshire has functioned as the perfect training ground for running Scotland.

The new first minister described his home patch as “microcosm” for the many different challenges the country faces.

The Blairgowrie resident even proclaimed his constituency to be “the very beating heart of Scotland – so why is that the case?

The urban and rural divide

Mr Swinney’s large Holyrood seat takes in much of the city of Perth but also covers swathes of the region’s countryside.

Tensions between what’s best for Scotland’s cities and what works better for rural communities has often proven a tricky challenge for the SNP.

Mr Swinney’s predecessors, Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf, were often accused of leading governments too focused on pandering to the densely populated central belt.

Mr Swinney campaigning in Perthshire. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

On government business on Friday, the new SNP leader told us: “I think I get a pretty good flavour from my constituency caseload of what people are wrestling with in our country.

“It’s a perfect microcosm of Scotland: Perth, with all the challenges of urban deprivation, and then the very diverse town and village communities.”

But how does the first minister’s home region and the local work he has done there inform his own politics?

Cities in crisis

Mr Swinney told The Courier that Perth’s struggles with deprivation were similar to the problems facing many of Scotland’s more urban areas.

The first minister listed tackling child poverty as one of the central missions that will dominate his time in office.

Damning government statistics released earlier this year showed 240,000 youngsters across the country were in poverty as of last year.

Perth and Kinross as a whole is far from being Scotland’s poorest local authority.

Yet nationwide data lists several pockets of Perth’s city centre as being among the top 20% most deprived areas in Scotland.

In 2022, the council set up a new taskforce to tackle poverty in the region.

Perth city centre faces plenty of challenges. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson

Since taking power Mr Swinney has also placed a relentless emphasis on improving Scotland’s economy in a bid to show his party is friendly to business.

Firms located in town centres up and down the country have faced a torrid time since the pandemic due to high inflation and interest rates.

Perth is no different.

Our own High Street tracker keeps up to date with the vacancy rates of shops in the city centre – and it’s a mixed picture.

One shop owner warned the city was going “backwards” when we spoke to him.

Rural challenges

When he spoke to The Courier after becoming SNP leader, Mr Swinney said tackling Perthshire’s housing crisis would be his priority for the region.

He said: “There is such pressure on housing within the Perthshire area.”

It’s timely that Scotland has just declared a nationwide emergency on that topic at a time when rents are soaring and families can’t find places to live.

A lack of homes in rural areas across the country led to staff shortages in key sectors, particularly health and social care.

Earlier this year Highland Perthshire landlords were asked to house foreign care workers who are in need of temporary accommodation.

The first minister reckons a huge part of the recruitment problems facing the sector come from stricter UK Government immigration rules.

He wants to see more people from abroad coming to Scotland to fill those vacancies.

Mr Swinney told us: “We’ve got a real problem about population, and that’s because of Brexit.”

He also said: “The UK Government is now celebrating making it harder for overseas masters students to study in the United Kingdom and for overseas care staff to work in the UK.

“I find that astonishing as a first minister wrestling with a social care crisis in our communities.”

How land is used in rural Scotland is often another key concern for many residents, given the many super-rich owners.

One of the biggest live debates on land use is right on Mr Swinney’s doorstep: the future of Taymouth Castle.

Mr Swinney has been involved in discussions over redevelopment plans for Taymouth Castle. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson.

US property tycoons want to turn the estate into a luxury resort which opponents claim will become a “gated community” for billionaires.

As a constituency MSP, Mr Swinney played a key role in arranging packed emergency meetings for residents who wanted to have their say.

The new first minister says he will continue to represent worried constituents on the matter, even though he has plenty more on his plate now.

Indeed, the SNP chief said his 13 months out of government served as a “sort of sabbatical year” while he focused on local concerns from the backbenches.

Mr Swinney was speaking at Barclays Bank in Glasgow to business leaders.

He linked his mission to tackling child poverty with his focus on growing the economy.

The first minister said: “There is no conflict in my mind on the priorities of my government between eradicating child poverty and boosting economic growth.

“For me and for my government eradicating child poverty and boosting economic growth go hand in hand.”

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