As this is my first Orkney News column of the New Year, I would like to wish readers a safe and healthy 2022. I hope folk were able to have as pleasant at time as possible over the festive season, although I know from speaking to some Orcadians that many celebrations had to be curtailed due to periods of household isolation as the number of Covid-19 cases increased.
It was almost inevitable, despite the new measures that came in after Christmas, that this time of year would see a rise in cases, but hopefully following the guidelines and regular testing will slow down the spread.
As emphasised by the First Minister, becoming fully vaccinated remains the best way to protect yourself and those around you from Covid-19 and its variants. For that reason I was pleased to see that 12 to 15-year-olds in Orkney are now being offered their second dose of the vaccine, with these being administered at clinics this week. My sincerest thanks go to all who are playing their part in this incredible effort.
Housing will continue to be a focus for me in 2022, and I was interested to hear recently of the potential for a housing conference in Orkney in the early part of the year. For me, affordability is the big issue that we have to tackle for private tenants, and I spoke about this in a debate on a new deal for housing tenants just before Christmas. As I said in the debate, commitments to build social and affordable housing across Scotland will do wonders for attempts to claw back some balance in the housing market. However, as fantastic as 110,000 new homes will be, more needs to happen. The constant loss of homes to absentee landlords in tourist hotspots and the fact that so many people are waiting on housing lists that, half the time, someone has to be homeless to get a council house cannot be addressed by house building alone. In addition, on the subject of depopulation, the fact that a house is expected in ten years or more will not prevent people from leaving the Highlands and Islands tomorrow.
In some areas of the region – and I know that Orkney is not immune to this issue – overtourism has prompted the conversion of more than 50% of locally available residential properties to holiday homes with key safes at the door. They lie empty; they cannot house our badly-needed health and social care workers, students or families; and they drive up the cost of homes and the ever-scarcer long-term rents that are available nearby.
Elsewhere, I was delighted to see applications open this week for the free bus travel scheme for under 22’s. I would encourage all those eligible in Orkney to apply for their National Entitlement Card that will open up access for young folk.
I look forward to making positive progress in 2022, and making a visit to Orkney as soon as it is safe to do so.
This is a regular column by SNP MSP Emma Roddick. All Highlands and Islands MSPs were offered the same space in The Orkney News to share their personal views.