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Fergus Ewing: ‘I don’t know of any sector of the economy that can work without EU workers.’

Population decline with a crisis in staffing our public services was one of the messages delivered loud and clear at The Convention of the Highlands and Islands (CoHI) when it met in Orkney on Monday 4th of March.

The CoHI meets twice a year and the March meeting was hosted by Orkney Islands Council at King St Halls, Kirkwall. It was open to the public but only a tiny handful of people watched the proceedings.

The Meeting covered 3 main discussion topics:

  • National Transport Strategy Review
  • Maximising the Marine Economy of the Highlands and Islands (MAXiMAR)
  • Shared Prosperity Fund/Brexit

James Stockan, Leader of Orkney Islands Council welcomed the CoHI to Orkney reminding them that it was in the best place to live in the UK. He tempered this with reference to connectivity issues, ferry expense and fuel poverty.

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John Swinney, Deputy First Minister in the Scottish Government, chairing the proceedings, used his introductory remarks to praise ‘the colossal leadership’ Orkney has shown in the development of marine renewables and indeed that sector was quite  dominant in later parts of the meeting.

John Swinney expressed the view of the Scottish Government that Scotland and in particular the Highlands and Islands will feel the disturbing repercussions of Brexit most acutely .

You can read more about that here: Orkney To Be Hardest Hit By A No Deal Brexit

Key to the concerns expressed at the meeting is population decline. Power over Migration is  reserved to the UK Government. John Swinney said that migration was a significant issue for Scotland. Ending the free movement of people will affect virtually every sector of our economy he said. Scotland simply does not have enough people to fill these posts. Skills will need to be developed but what will thwart us, he continued, is having the people to deliver the training.

National Transport Strategy Review

Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands in the Scottish Government described the CoHI Transport Strategy Review as  a genuinely collaborative process. Heather Cowan from Transport Scotland explained that the review builds on existing transport commitments. It went beyond those to look  at a national and a regional approach.

You can read the documents on that here: Transport Scotland Strategy

Concerns were raised about Equality of access including the lack of public transport in rural areas preventing young people accessing educational opportunities. Poor public transport it was felt also contributed to population decline. The refreshed Transport Strategy is aimed at a carbon neutral future but several speakers wanted to see road improvements. An inefficient road network it was argued affected vital sectors of timber and whisky production and the aquaculture industry. There was further comments that new build homes should be required to have charging points for Electric Vehicles.

James Stockan was concerned that ‘everything is being pushed into the future’ and we have urgent needs now.

“Before we build out into the future let’s make sure we have the things we need now.”

A strong point made by James Stockan and supported by many in the room was that people should be able to travel from the Highlands and Islands to the cities in the central belt within the working day. Gary Robinson , NHS Shetland, pointed out that the Transport Renewed Strategy was light on air travel and yet that is how most people from Shetland access hospital appointments in Glasgow.

John Swinney defended the Transport Strategy saying that lots of things were happening. ‘I didn’t want people to think nothing is happening,’ he said. He added that a wider discussion is needed  on connectivity. Digital has brought the Highlands and Islands much closer together, new markets have opened up but it creates the issue of getting products to the market. The aspiration he said is ‘transport by some means other than road’.

Paul Wheelhouse reminded the meeting of the funding that was available for improving access to ferries. Improving the Accessibility of Ferry Travel to Orkney and Shetland

Maximising the Marine Economy of the Highlands and Islands (MAXiMAR)

This audit was submitted to the UK Government on 29th of June 2018 but has still not been published. It focusses on the emerging sectors. The discussion was dominated by the Marine Renewables Industry which was strange considering Fergus Ewing,  Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy in the Scottish Government, had just returned from speaking to the Orkney Fishing community about a national discussion document: Future of fisheries management in Scotland: national discussion paper

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The MAXiMAR discussion was led by Morven Cameron of HIE with contributions from Sandy Kerr of ICIT Heriot Watt and Neil Kermode of EMEC. There is no argument about the huge impact the research and development of marine renewables has had on Orkney but inshore fisheries and aquaculture are vital industries in our coastal and island communities. It was striking that these were not  featured at the meeting. The ending of free movement of people and goods will have a huge impact on all 3 sectors.

It was up to Fergus Ewing to remind the meeting of the large financial investment there is in Scotland in Aquaculture. He praised the role of Universities in research and innovation. On Marine Renewables, Fergus Ewing  pointed out that until we get the grid connections we need that we will not realise the full potential of the resource we have. Migration he said was essential – and this was the recurring theme throughout the day’s proceedings.

Shared Prosperity Fund/Brexit

The afternoon session was about Brexit although that had hung in the air for the whole day. The meeting was stunned when John Swinney informed them that he knew no more than they did about what was happening.

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The UK Government has announced a Shared Prosperity Fund which it has promised will replace the considerable funding being lost as we leave the EU. There is unsurprisingly a lack of details about this and progress is slow.

Government statement on UK Shared Prosperity Fund – replacement for ESIF funding post-Brexit

The CoHI intends presenting a strong case in applying to the Shared Prosperity Fund but it will be competing with the rest of the UK including areas of England which will also argue  for funding.

John Swinney desired to see the fund being comparable in value to that which came from the EU and that there should be local discretion in how it is used. James Stockan urged all present to work together with the Scottish Government.

Fergus Ewing pointed out that a No Deal would see small/hill farmers most at risk. There would be a 40- 45% tariff applied to Scotch lamb going to the EU – by far our biggest market. This he said would eliminate that market. The £ would continue to fall and the price of lamb would collapse. It is believed this will lead to the slaughter of thousands of lambs as it will not be profitable to continue to keep them.

‘Our job is to do what we can’,  Fergus Ewing pledged and reminded the meeting that the Scottish Government would be continuing with LFASS  (Less Favoured Area Support Scheme) payments. But he added there would be delays at the ports of Dover and Calais and additional costs with Export Health Certificates. He described the UK Governments proposed schemes as ‘bonkers’.

‘There’s only so much we can do to mitigate,’ he said. ‘I don’t know of any sector of the economy that can work without EU workers.’

Convention of the Highlands and Islands 6The Convention of the Highlands and Islands will meet again in 6 months time – within that period a great deal may have happened which will drastically change the economy of the Highlands and Islands. Nobody really knows because we are still not sure that Brexit will take place.

What we do know is that the uncertainty caused by a completely incompetent UK Government has resulted in many EU nationals already having left and others preparing to do so. The Hostile Environment created by politicians south of the Border which led to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox has made many of our friends, neighbours and fellow workers now feeling unwelcome.

This is the lasting tragedy of the Brexit bourach – whether it takes place or not – the damage done to relationships between people.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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