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Scotland’s National Islands Plan

A bureaucratic check list or an opportunity for local empowerment?

National Islands PlanScotland’s National Islands Plan has now been published – 27th of December 2019.

Years in the making, The Orkney News has followed its progress, participated in public events and reported on the journey from ‘Our Islands Our Future’, Islands Bill, Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 and now the Islands Plan.

Paul Wheelhouse, Islands Minister in the Scottish Government has called it an ‘historic milestone.’

He said:

“The plan is a key milestone, but it cannot be allowed to just sit on a shelf – I now look forward to working with colleagues and partner organisations to put the plan into action.

“Through the plan’s development, Scotland is showing our island communities that they are very important to our nation, we care about their futures and that their voices are strong and being heard.”

The vision in the days of the consultation was that the Islands Plan was not to be seen to be a static document but one that was flexible to the needs of the different Islands Authorities and of the fast changing events we are now caught up in.

There are 13 strategic objectives

  1. Population Levels: To address population decline and ensure a healthy, balanced population profile
  2. Sustainable Economic Development: To improve and promote sustainable economic development
  3. Transport: To improve transport services
  4. Housing: To improve housing
  5. Fuel poverty: To reduce levels of fuel poverty
  6. Digital Connectivity: To improve digital connectivity
  7. Health, Social Care and Wellbeing : To improve and promote health, social care and wellbeing
  8. Environmental Wellbeing and Biosecurity: To improve and promote environmental wellbeing and deal with biosecurity
  9. Climate Change and Energy: To contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation and promote clean, affordable  and secure energy
  10. Empowered Island Communities and Strong Local Partnership: To empower diverse communities and different places
  11. Arts, Culture and Language: To support arts, culture and language
  12. Education: To promote and improve education for all throughout life
  13. Implementation: To support effective implementation of the National Islands Plan

The Islands Plan covers a period of 5 years. It will then be reviewed to see how effective it has been and what needs to be changed to reflect new circumstances. The UK is set to leave the EU in 4 weeks time. There may or may not be a transition period. Whether the transition period takes place or not the 3 Islands Authorities will feel the impact of Brexit significantly. The loss of EU funding is just one area where the islands have benefited from membership. Will this funding be replaced by some other UK Government scheme? No one knows. Which is also why for those running businesses or engaged in research Brexit brings with it huge uncertainty over the future of many projects and markets for goods.

The Four Principles

The Islands Plan is based on 4 principles: fairness, integration, environmental protection (green) and inclusiveness.

Islands Plan

Depopulation

Scotland as a whole has an ageing population. In the future, without control over immigration, many public services will struggle to have a workforce able to deliver to the standard we expect. Some, like care at home, are already at levels nearing crisis. For island communities, especially the smaller ones, depopulation is now at such a rate that the sustainability of those islands is unsure.

“Depopulation was the top priority issue identified by respondents to the consultation. Those from some islands, such as North Ronaldsay, told us they had suffered such extensive population decline that the survival of the island community is at risk. This issue is also challenging in terms of employment levels and workforce availability on islands with a limited population size. “

Crofting

The Islands Plan also commits to developing a National Development Plan for Crofting which is more than ironic given that new legislation to reform crofting was put on ‘hold’ by the Scottish Government due to the pressures of Brexit. Crofting Bill Dropped by Scottish Government

As someone who took part in the public consultation events on Crofting this was extremely disappointing and illustrates just how fragile commitments to reform can be when something else comes along and takes priority.

Abattoirs

This is an extremely important issue in Orkney because we no longer have an abattoir on the Islands. Orkney Beef and Lamb has lost its accreditation for PDO (Protected Designation of Origin)  as the animals are now sent off island to be slaughtered. The Islands Plan recognises ‘the services that island abattoirs provide to their communities, we will work with relevant partners to deliver sustainable and economical viable operations.’  Always check the words : ‘sustainable and economical viable operations’ , does not necessarily mean support for re-establishing an abattoir  in Orkney.

Integration

The Islands Plan is intended to tie into other current pieces of legislation and developments: National Marine Plan, The Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, Islands Growth Deal, 2020 Infrastructure Investment Plan,Scotland’s Economic Action Plan, Energy Strategy,Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland,National Planning Framework and Local Development Plans.

All public bodies are to take into account Islands when they produce policies, guidelines etc by ‘Island Proofing’ them. This has happened already to a certain extent with the improved forensic services to be provided in Orkney. Improving access to healthcare services for victims of rape and sexual assaults The concern, as always with this would be that ‘Island Proofing’ becomes a checklist , ticked off with no real thought as to the actual impact. Time will tell on the effective implementation of ‘Island Proofing’ as I suspect it may be rather haphazard in its application.

Transport

The Islands Passport

This is an initiative to encourage visitors to the islands – all year round – and by using public transport. As we as individuals think of our carbon footprint this would be a step in the right direction. My one comment would be that I travelled from Orkney to Lewis in May by public transport and it took me 14 hours. That was with fine weather too.

Transport is key to island life – and always has been. The Islands Plan states:

A fair, low carbon transport system is needed so that island communities are put on an equal footing with people on the Scottish mainland, and in order for transport to fully allow the fulfilment of basic human rights. It also enables the growth of sustainable tourism, allowing those who want to visit our islands to do so.

Listed are several areas where the Scottish Government has invested in transport links: £1.9 billion in ferry services since 2007,RET (Road Equivalent Tariff) ‘ We intend to extend RET to Northern Isles routes when we are able to do so’, A Ferries Plan and dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness. Hoy and Shapinsay get special mentions for their local transport solutions. The Air Discount Scheme for islanders will continue and a commitment to the future provision of low/zero emission planes.

Fuel Poverty

Orkney has the highest rate of fuel poverty in the UK and for the other two Islands Authorities it is also a considerable problem for many islanders. The choice for many, particularly in the winter, is between eating and heating, as only one can be afforded. Shocking. The Islands Plan is clear about the reasons for fuel poverty in the islands but actual solutions to deal with this issue here and now there are none with the exception of a ‘ Minimum Income Standard uplift‘ to be developed in the future. This was extremely disappointing.

Digital Connectivity

Digital Connectivity has a significant problem with the R100 project currently on hold due to a legal challenge, Legal Challenge Delays R100 Broadband to the North but there is also the development of 5G. Digital health initiatives are also to be promoted.

There is a commitment in the Plan to support Orkney Islands Council to host the 2023 Islands Games.

The Environment

Protecting Island Bio Diversity is a top priority and establishing an Islands Forum on the Deposit Return Scheme which has had a mixed reaction to it in Orkney.

More trees and woodlands are to be planted and Peatlands protected. The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney is used an example of developing emerging technologies. In both Orkney and Shetland, however, the limits of interconnection with mainland Scotland remains with Ofgem:

There are, and will continue to be in future, strong cases to upgrade existing island connections to the mainland or to build new ones so that the electricity generated on the islands can help meet wider Scottish and UK demand, and to allow for profits associated with the generation to be reinvested appropriately on the islands. 

Renewables map in Scotland

The Scottish Crown Estate

Scottish Crown Estate Bill Passed was a piece of legislation that took place almost in parallel to the Islands Act. I was quite surprised at a local consultation event on the proposed Islands Bill when  a leading developer in Orkney dismissed the income that might come to the islands from the Crown Estate. Nevertheless since the legislation was passed this has happened Councils Receive Share of Crown Estate Revenues of £7.5million.  It is about more than the income which may accrue:

The diversity of the property, rights and interests comprising the Scottish Crown Estate, around our islands, mean decisions on the use of the assets taken in Scotland and based on Scottish priorities in a transparent and inclusive way can deliver significant economic, social and environmental benefits and opportunities for our island communities across Scotland now and into the future.

How will we know if the Islands Plan is working for our benefit?

Every year Scottish Ministers will have to report on the Islands Plan. There will also be visits to islands to look at specific projects and how they are meeting the objectives of the Plan. It’s really up to communities and individuals to hold to account local and national governments if the Islands Plan is not being implemented or if it is going wrong. If we think it is becoming just a bureaucratic check list then we as individuals and as groups require to challenge this.

Language

On a final note it is braw that language in Scotland is to be acknowledged in all its diversity with :

Support all of Scotland’s indigenous languages and dialects in ways that are relevant to the communities where these are spoken.

And that given that over 20,000 people signed up to learn Gaelic on Duolingo that the Plan will:

Ensure that the effect on Gaelic language development is considered from the outset in island-specific policies and initiatives and that these link to statutory Gaelic language plans.

Sgonneil !

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

National Islands Plan

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