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Milestones and green shoots: the Scottish islands since devolution

Scottish Parliament 20th anniversary islands focus - Image credit: Holyrood

Milestones and green shoots: the Scottish islands since devolution

“Unique” and “one of the world's first and only place-based laws” was how the Islands Act was described by former islands minister Humza Yousaf.

Passed in 2018, the act requires ‘island proofing’ of policy and legislation, gives island councils greater powers over activities around their coastlines and obliges the Scottish Government to produce an islands plan.

Earlier this month, the Scottish Government put its proposed national islands plan out for consultation.

The plan sets out strategic objectives in areas such as housing, population levels, economic development and transport that are vital to maintaining and improving the quality of life for island communities.

The Islands Act was perhaps the key post-devolution milestone, with the potential for significant change, but there have been other developments from the 1990s onwards, such as community buyouts on a number of islands, including Eigg, Gigha, North Harris and the South Uist Estate, putting land into local control; changes to ferry and air services; and the opportunities presented by renewable energy as well as better digital connectivity.

But with the Northern and Western Isles among the furthest places from the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, has devolution delivered for the islands?

“I think in some respects, it’s maybe what didn't change, first of all, because I think the great promise of devolution was that it wasn't going to stop at Holyrood,” says Gary Robinson, former leader of Shetland Islands Council and current chair of NHS Shetland.

Robinson suggests that the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign, which led to the Islands Act, was “born out of the frustration that devolution had got stuck in Edinburgh”.

He refers back to the Montgomery Committee of Inquiry into Functions and Powers of Island Councils, which as long ago as 1984 recommended that the opportunity to “consolidate, develop and extend” island councils’ powers should be taken wherever possible but notes that it was “never enacted”.

While all the islands are different, one commonality that affects them all is transport to and from the mainland, and while much has been positive, not all of it has.

Robinson mentions changes to the Northern Isles ferry services, which previously had been run by P&O Ferries, after they were put out to tender.

He explains: “We'd been used to having a service where there were ample cabins for anybody that wanted to travel.

“And the level of subsidy was quite modest, I think … but when the new service came in with the new ferries, which had to be quite quickly rustled up for the service, the level of subsidy increased four-fold, the number of cabins actually reduced and while P&O Ferries had operated an integrated service for passengers and freight, the new NorthLink service wasn't integrated at all and it relied on other haulage companies to buy space on the ships …

“It was one seamless service, but that was dismantled.”

He believes the decision to put the service out to tender was driven by the suspicion that P&O were abusing their subsidy, but he doesn’t think that was the case.

“In reality, when the NorthLink service came into being and they required almost four times the amount of subsidy, I think that question answered itself.

“I honestly don't think P&O were abusing their subsidy. I think they were running a very efficient and effective service and there’s many in the islands that still hark back to how good the service was.”

A significant development for the Western Isles was the introduction of the road equivalent tariff (RET) on ferry routes on the west coast.

Brought in by the SNP, it was initially a pilot on routes to the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree in October 2008, and then rolled out to the remaining Hebridean and Clyde routes between 2012 and 2015. An evaluation of the trial to the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree found a 30 per cent increase in car traffic in the first year.

The Scottish Government has not been able to introduce RET on ferries to the Northern Isles due to a challenge by Pentland Ferries over EU state aid rules on Orkney routes, although it did reduce fares to Shetland by 20 per cent in June 2018.

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur has been pushing for the tariff to cover Orkney, while Orkney Islands Council wants some of the funding to go to inter-island routes in the meantime.

Changes have also been made to air travel.

An air discount scheme for flights to and from the islands was brought in by former Shetland MSP Tavish Scott when he was in government, and Derek Mackay raised the level of subsidy from 40 per cent to 50 per cent in 2016.

“That has clearly made a difference,” says Robinson, “but it was a really, really expensive service at the outset. And if we’re honest, it's still pretty expensive by comparison.

“I mean, folk very often comment that you could go to New York from Edinburgh or Glasgow for the price that you can come to Shetland from Edinburgh or Glasgow. And that is a fair criticism.”

The same is true in the Western Isles, something that has become more important since a side effect of the success of RET has been ferries being booked up, particularly in the busy summer months.

But Robinson suggests that the “real issue with the air discounts is there doesn't seem to be any strategic end game”.

“It doesn't seem to be a means to an end in any way whatsoever. I mean, it just seems to be a perpetual subsidy.

“And I think, certainly here in Shetland, we sometimes compare ourselves to what they’ve done in Faroe and rather than be given a discount, they've actually invested in infrastructure, whereby they've been able to bring the cost of travel down.

“Faroe has quite comparable passenger numbers to Shetland, but they've extended their airport and they now have the ability to operate the Airbus 320s, and I think they've just placed an order for their fifth or sixth Airbus 320, but they’ve got a really modern, up-to-date service and when you're using larger aircraft, then you get the kinds of economy of scale that you just don't get with 34-seat, 30-year-old aircraft, which is essentially what Loganair is operating.”

Depopulation, and an ageing population, are factors frequently mentioned in connection with the islands. According to the census, the total population of all the Scottish islands rose from 99,594 in 2001 to 103,702 in 2011, an increase of over 4,000.

But this varied between islands, with population growth on some, including most of Shetland and Orkney, Lewis and Harris, Skye, Mull, Barra and Benbecula, while others, including Bute, Arran, Islay, North and South Uist, saw population decreases. But recent evidence suggests this does not tell the full story.

“For too long, many islands and rural areas of Scotland have been written off as in terminal decline,” says CoDeL, Community Development Lens, in Uist.

“This has often overshadowed an appreciation of the extraordinary innovation, entrepreneurialism and resilience that have sustained, and are increasingly growing, many such communities in spite of the challenges of remoteness they face.”

Set up in 2018 by Thomas Fisher, Theona Morrison and Gemma Steele, CoDeL aims to analyse micro-trends on island and rural areas of Scotland to identify trends that are missed in data aggregated across larger areas, as well as contributing to community development based on a better understanding of what is happening in small communities and creating opportunities for younger people to influence their local communities.

Community research in Uist by CoDeL found that half of the young people who responded to a survey were either returners or people with no prior connection to the islands who had chosen to move there; and newcomers or returners were responsible for 40-60 per cent of the babies born in the islands.

The story from Shetland is also fairly positive.

Robinson says: “I think we've always sort of been in the danger area when it comes to depopulation. We've been warned of it for many years.

“We have in Shetland managed to buck the trend quite a bit, but we do seem to be stuck at the moment around about the 23,000 and we don't seem to be moving ahead.

“It's not just that long ago, I can remember, probably about 1999, we had a population that was, I think, maybe just over 21,000.

“So we have grown our population a bit, but certainly we had indications and indeed, we had a report that suggested that if we could drive our population above 25,000, then it would actually help with the economies of scale when it came to things like transport and other public services, but despite, I think, the best efforts of a number of agencies, we haven't managed that yet.”

An ‘Islands Revival Declaration’ published in September and backed by members of a number of bodies including the James Hutton Institute, Scotland's Rural College, Community Land Scotland and CoDeL says: “We affirm that there is credible evidence of ‘green shoots’ of population turnaround in the Scottish islands, which as yet does not show up in official statistics.”

The declaration also affirms that there are multiple factors driving and facilitating positive population trends and describes the kind of policy framework that will create sustainable populations.

One factor is likely to be the expansion of further and higher education that has, in the two decades since devolution, meant that young people do not need to leave the islands.

The University of the Highlands and Islands was launched as the UHI Millennium Institute in 2001 and given the power to award degrees in 2008, becoming a university in 2011.

Although the constituent island colleges – Shetland College, North Atlantic Fisheries College (now NAFC Marine Centre), Orkney College, Lews Castle College/Colaisde a’ Chaisteil and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig – already existed, bringing them together, as well as the awarding of university status, has vastly expanded the number of courses and qualifications on offer at all levels right up to PhDs.

Superfast broadband has also been “transformative” for the islands, according to Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan, with around 75 per cent now able to connect to it, a difference in just seven or eight years, although he notes that will be of little comfort to the 25 per cent who are still waiting for it.

Robinson also says that broadband has had an impact, although there’s a “real divide between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to connectivity”.

This, in turn, has led to a diversifying of the economy and more business start-ups.

One such is the North Uist Distillery, launched earlier this year by Kate MacDonald and Jonny Ingledew, both Uist natives who have returned in their 30s to make their home there and set up a business.

Currently producing gin, the long-term plan is to build a whisky distillery, which will create 13 quality jobs, in addition to their own.

They mention some of the benefits and challenges of starting a business there.

“[One of the] benefits would be the community support, which you can imagine,” says MacDonald. “We definitely even underestimated that, it’s just been so supportive, so many people who are living away but from Uist have been very supportive, buying bottles, sending messages, all that kind of thing, so it's been a great place in terms of community and [it] feels like everyone is kind of behind it.

“And then challenges, I guess, it's everything costs a lot more to get here.”

Ingledew adds: “It costs about 25 per cent more to run a business in the islands, I've heard quoted by other businesses.

“And you kind of get hit both ways, bringing materials onto the island for us, pallets and glass bottles, for instance, and then shipping stuff off the island as well… and that's why we tailored our business model, which was originally going to be a brewery and distillery, to a straight distillery because the economics of a brewery in a remote location are very, very difficult to make work, even more so than a whisky distillery really.

“You need to go into a high-value, low-volume kind of a business, which is thankfully what spirits fulfil.”

MacDonald continues: “I guess a good thing for us in terms of timing is the internet is brilliant in Uist now… everyone's getting connected with fibre, but you get complete 4G coverage.

“We actually set up the whole business off a 4G hotspot on my phone and had no hiccups.”

Ingledew also mentions tourism, which has increased since the introduction of RET, as being essential for a business like theirs.

There has been increased interest in, and promotion of, Gaelic culture in recent years.

A new museum, Museum nan Eilean, opened in Stornoway in 2016, while Gaelic arts organisation Ceòlas is currently building a Gaelic cultural centre in South Uist.

But Robinson notes there has been a difficulty in having Shetland marketed differently from the rest of Scotland “because at one time, VisitScotland made clear that they really wanted to promote Scotland as a whole, under a sort of tartan and shortbread banner”, which led to them setting up their own tourism agency, Promote Shetland, that now focuses on getting people to move to Shetland.

Issues remain, though, with fuel poverty high – despite the fact that the islands produce energy – as well as shortages of housing and long distances to some health services.

However, it is improved transport that, according to Robinson, could be a real gamechanger.

“I think transport is one area the verdict would be ‘could do better’.

“I think that's the one that can make a real difference in the islands.

“If we could crack the transport issues, then I think that would make a massive difference in so many ways.

“It adds cost to everything that we do in the islands. But if you get it right, it should improve everything that we do in the islands.”

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