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A bright future

A bright future

By their very nature, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Shetland Islands and Orkney Islands Councils have a strong sense of identity while also sharing an abundance of natural resources and a pride in their cultural traditions. In June last year, the three councils launched the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign, setting out their vision for a stronger future following the independence referendum. They called for a commitment that whatever the outcome, the needs and status of island areas were clearly recognised in the new era for Scotland. In response, the Scottish Government set up a ministerial working group to discuss the subject, which met six times. The UK Government also engaged in extensive dialogue with the local authorities.

In June, almost a year to the day since the campaign was launched, the First Minister unveiled the Scottish Government’s response to the campaign by publishing the Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities document.

He said: “[This] prospectus is the most comprehensive package for empowering Scotland’s island communities that has been put forward by any Government. It recognises the unique contribution that island communities make to modern Scotland, and also the distinctive needs and priorities they have.

“Most of all, though, it recognises that Scotland’s islands have huge potential – a wealth of culture and history; stunning landscapes; massive renewable energy resources; and a host of successful businesses in sectors such as food and drink, life sciences and tourism.

“We are determined to work with the islands’ communities to unleash that potential and to create a sustainable and prosperous future. By doing so, we will honour the principles of subsidiarity and local decision-making at the heart of the Lerwick Declaration. And even more importantly, we will help to build wealthier and fairer island communities, as part of a wealthier and fairer Scotland.”

Following this, in August, Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, launched a framework between the UK Government and three councils, the first agreement of its kind in the country. It stated it will embed an islands’ voice at the heart of the UK Government and reflect the priorities of those communities more closely in decision-making and policy. 
Some of the points included in this plan included new arrangements to scrutinise UK Government policy and legislation to ensure they take account of islands’ priorities; and the creation of a new Islands Working Group to be supported by a dedicated position in the Scotland Office and have its agenda set by the islands. The framework also recognises that the islands are vital to meeting the UK’s energy needs and also includes a firm UK Government commitment to the Renewable Energy Delivery Forum, focused on getting transmission links to the islands. 

The UK Government also said it is committed to working with retailers, consumer groups and enforcers to ensure parcel delivery charges to remote regions are fair and transparent, in line with the UK statement of principles for parcel deliveries. On digital connectivity, a commitment was given to fund the Mobile Infrastructure Project, working to provide improved mobile coverage in areas of the UK which are most difficult to reach, aiming to address market failures in these areas.  

Carmichael said the announcement builds on a “great deal” of good work in the past. He said: “It will mean their unique needs are considered across all UK Government activity and legislation, tailoring our approach to ensure islands’ issues continue to get the attention they require. That is good news for the councils and for the whole country and will improve the economy, connectivity and lives of people on our islands. It shows we are not only listening, but acting and in doing so we are strengthening Scotland and its place in the UK. This is the start of the next part of our journey together, giving us a strong framework which will be reviewed and built on further in the future.”

Following the No vote in September’s referendum, how have things progressed?

A spokesman for the Scottish Government told Holyrood: “The Secretary of State for Scotland’s own framework for the islands recognises that the UK Government proposals ‘do not meet the islands’ councils’ aspirations on devolution of the Crown Estate. The Scottish Government’s prospectus, Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities, was developed with leaders of the councils participating in the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign. 

 “Local Government Minister Derek Mackay has already spoken to all three island councils since the outcome of the referendum and going forward we intend to continue this work with Scotland’s islands to discuss the respective proposals.”

Leader of Orkney Council, Dr Steven Heddle, said prior to the referendum, the main focus was on achieving forms of agreement with the UK and Scottish Governments. 

He added: “We were aware that the referendum was a negotiating lever in the process. Also we were working to get commitments from the opposition parties, for example, Scottish Labour, and speaking to other main bodies, such as the Local Government and Regeneration Committee at Holyrood. 

“Now the referendum has come and gone, we know that we’re dealing with two governments and I’m pleased to say that both have been in touch with us. Alistair Carmichael, the Secretary of State for Scotland, wrote to us on the 25 September, highlighting a number of the specific measures which had been mentioned in the framework for the islands. We are currently looking at the working arrangements for the secondment of an officer to the Scotland Office representing the islands’ councils. 

“The Islands Working Group is a body to be set up with the agenda set by the islands and it is suggested we convene this in the next few weeks to confirm priorities for the year ahead. 

“European representation remains a reserved matter so we have a relationship with the UK rep to put forward ideas relating to islands. On the other side of the coin, we’ve all been contacted by Local Government Minister Derek Mackay, committing the Scottish Government fully to carry forward the Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities agenda and asking us for an early meeting to prioritise the things we are taking forward from that. That will probably be in the next three weeks. 

“As far as how the landscape has changed, if there had been a Yes vote we would have been speaking solely to the Scottish Government and we would have been pushing forward on the different things which were detailed as distinct measures in the Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities document. Obviously, there are issues we can’t make progress on there, for example, Europe and the Crown Estate, but we still reckon there’re still about 100 measures that weren’t contingent on independence and to a greater or lesser extent we were working with the Scottish Government on anyway.”

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