The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on an Islands Bond. Now before I launch into my cynicism about the Bond I need to stress that I feel it is important that people respond to it. There’s no point just commenting on social media. So here is the link to the Islands Bond information and online survey: Islands Bond Consultation
The intent of the Islands Bond is meant well, to address depopulation in island communities. I have taken part in the consultation and sent in my views despite my extreme misgivings to the whole process which is based on several factors.
Firstly, islanders were extensively consulted over the very excellent initiative ‘Our Islands Our Future’ which was instigated by Orkney Islands Councillor, Steven Heddle. This developed over time with a Scottish Government appointed Islands Team into The Islands Act. The most important part of the Islands Act being The Islands Plan.
The whole point of the Islands Plan is that it is intended to be a flexible response to the needs of differing islands – so there is not a one size fits all approach – an Islands Plan for Orkney may well look very different from an Islands Plan for Shetland. Indeed within Island Authorities, plans would vary depending on individual islands needs.
Sadly The Islands Act has been weakened already by the actions of the likes of HIAL (Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd). HIAL has a Remote Towers project (reported on extensively in The Orkney News) and as part of that development it commissioned an Islands Impact Assessment. This Islands Proofing is an integral part of the Islands Act to make sure islands are not adversely affected by proposed developments and policies. The HIAL Impact Assessment for Remote Towers was a damning evaluation of the project which will see well paid highly skilled jobs removed from islands to be centralised in Inverness. HIAL, a private company wholly owned by Scottish Government Ministers, is still on course to go ahead with it.
Now to look at the Islands Bond and its key aim – to address the issue of depopulation.
Given all I have written above about previous consultations and the Islands Plan – where has this Islands Bond idea popped out from?
It is a SNP election manifesto commitment – so it’s not come out of island communities developing a Plan and saying this is what we need – it’s an election promise, which give them their due the SNP Scottish Government is aiming to fulfil. But the electorate of two Islands Authorities didn’t vote SNP, so there’s a wee issue there too with accountability and the democratic process. The people in Orkney and Shetland didn’t vote for the SNP manifesto.
Looking at the Islands Bond in more detail. There will be 100 Bonds issued of up to £50,000 (means tested) to individual applicants. This will be over the course of this Parliament ( which ends in 2026). It can be used to buy land, to build/renovate a house or to start up a business. The idea is that young people and families will be encouraged to remain in an island or to move to an island. So all well intentioned, but too little and fraught with knock on consequences – raising the price of houses and land in areas where that is already a problem.
Islands share many of the same problems with depopulation that parts of mainland Scotland do. Those areas don’t figure in the Islands Bond. It’s not for them. How they address depopulation is not catered for. And whilst many of the issues facing islands and mainland Scotland are the same: landownership, housing, connectivity (both of transport and digital links), low wages and the high cost of living – living in island communities is quite a different lifestyle than being on mainland Scotland. That’s why we have the Islands Act and why we should be developing Islands Plans not short term manifesto commitments.
The even bigger picture, which will affect life in islands is climate change. The Covid pandemic was a global wake up to our governments of what happens when through our actions we weaken our planet’s biodiversity and a highly infectious, deadly virus is transported about through mass tourism.
Developing well thought out flexible Islands Plans could address more effectively the issue of depopulation and come up with local solutions compared to a short term one size fits all approach Islands Bond. Islands Plans would also be able to respond to the threat of the climate crisis and what we in the islands can do for the sustainability of our islands.