With less than a year until Scotland goes to the polls to decide the outcome of the independence referendum, Shetland, Orkney, and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have taken the opportunity to set out their stall regarding the possibility for more powers and more control for their areas. The councils have agreed to work together to ensure that whatever happens over the next two or three years in relation to the constitution of Scotland, “the position and needs of island areas are adequately taken into account and the particular nature of Scotland’s three main islands’ areas acknowledged and recognised”. This prompted the creation of the Our Islands, Our Future campaign.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar leader Angus Campbell explained: “This is one of the most important times for our three island areas since the inception of the island councils in 1975. Indeed, there is currently a once in a generation opportunity. The constitutional debate offers the opportunity for the three island councils to secure increased powers for our communities to take decisions which will benefit the economies and the lives of those who live in the islands.”
The debate about the powers and duties of islands councils in Scotland is not new. The report of the Committee of Enquiry and Functions and Powers of the Island Councils of Scotland chaired by Sir David Montgomery – known as the Montgomery Committee – was submitted to the UK Parliament by the Secretary of State for Scotland in April 1984.
The key principles established by the Montgomery Committee were that opportunities should be taken whenever possible to consolidate, develop and extend the powers of island councils in a continuing process of development in the local government of the areas; and Acts of Parliament should include a position to vary the application to the island’s areas.
The European Union’s Consolidated Treaty provides in Article 174 that EU policy should give “special attention” to the specific characteristics of territories with serious and permanent handicaps, including islands, and that these objectives should be taken into account in the implementation of the internal market. The term “permanent handicap” in this sense refers to the fact that islands are territories with more limited options, for example, as to modes of transport and the number of economic activities, and which reflect the fragility of markets limited by small populations, and the need to import a significant proportion of supplies and resources.
Orkney leader Steven Heddle stressed that Our Islands, Our Future is a discussion the councils want to have, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. He added: “We were aware as islands that we have special challenges and requirements and also over the past 30 years the various governments have recognised this, Europe has recognised this and we’ve been subject to various studies, notably the Montgomery Commission. In actual fact, little has changed and we’ve found that often we’ve been subject to a one-size-fits-all agenda.
“We are adopting a principled approach in pointing out to the governments what we think they should be doing in terms of subsidiarity, local decision making and local democracy.
“The referendum is coming up and it is a time for ideas and idealism, it is time for us to float our own ideas and how we might respond to the referendum and contemplate how the referendum might affect us. This led to us thinking about this in some detail, doing a lot of research at the start of the year and putting together the Our Islands, Our Future position which we launched in June.
“The people are almost uniformly in favour of what we are trying to do here, they can see the benefits of local democracy and they see the pitfalls we are pointing out in the issues where we don’t have local control.”
The councils have conducted detailed research in relation to the frameworks in which other island areas operate – for example, the Falklands and the Isle of Man – and of the various constitutional approaches which are available.
Some of the main principles in relation to the development and extension of the powers of islands councils could involve:
* Control of the sea bed. Island authorities having control of revenues currently paid to the Crown Estate and being able to utilise these resources to meet local needs.
* Development of Fishery Management Plans and Schemes of Assistance.
* The effective development of the world-class renewable energy resources around the islands with genuine community participation and benefits, and appropriate connections to export the energy to be generated.
*Sustainable transport: effective transport links to maximise island resources, and effective engagement with the EU to seek appropriate targeting of structural fund assistance.
*Mainland/island ferry services and inter-island ferry services being commissioned, funded, operated and controlled from the islands to meet island needs, with appropriate resource transfer.
*Potential changes to fiscal arrangements to allow the islands to benefit more directly from the exploitation of local resources.
*Public sector reform: continued development of the integrated public authority concept, in the context of enhanced community planning with a view to achieving better local decision making and greater efficiency within the provision of public services.
The Our Islands, Our Future campaign launched in June and a new ministerial working group has been formed to look at further empowerment of the island communities. The first meeting considered options for further devolution of the functions of the Crown Estate. Further discussions will cover energy, renewables, transport and governance issues. The group agreed to work towards developing a prospectus outlining opportunities for island communities in the context of the referendum. The next meeting will take place early in October in Stornoway, when the group is expected to consider a number of issues including energy.
Minister for Local Government and Communities, Derek Mackay said: “The Lerwick Declaration made clear that this Government is committed to the principle of local decision making and subsidiarity. I’m therefore pleased that at the first meeting of the island areas working group we discussed an ambitious workplan to look at the potential for further devolution of powers for Scotland’s islands and the opportunities that independence could open up for our island communities, including energy, renewables and the Crown Estate. I look forward to developing this agenda in more detail and agreeing a prospectus for the future of the islands in the context of the referendum.”
Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson said: “While our campaign is politically neutral, we certainly welcome the opportunity to engage with the Scottish Government and are very pleased that a working group will be set up and that our campaign is being taken seriously. We need to ensure that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, we have secured the very best future for the three islands and their communities.”
Scottish Secretary of State Michael Moore has also committed to meeting the councils to discuss the initiative. Moore gave the commitment during a tour of the Outer Hebrides and Skye.
The three authorities focused on the subject in more depth during last week’s Our Islands, Our Future conference. The event featured leading academics, politicians and business leaders, and was held in Kirkwall.