Having visited Orkney several times since being elected as a Highlands and Islands MSP just over a year ago, I am under no illusion as to the importance of digital connectivity throughout the islands.
Despite the reserved nature of telecommunications legislation, the Scottish Government has had to intervene, using its own resources, to extend access to digital infrastructure across the country. In particular, I welcome the installation of 16 new subsea fibre cables under the Scottish Government R100 programme, which will improve the connectivity of island communities across the Highlands and Islands, not least Orkney.
Given the importance of the issue, I took the opportunity during questions at Holyrood last week to ask Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy Kate Forbes, herself an MSP in this region, to expand a little more on what specific improvements are expected. This was especially timely, with work having started recently to connect seven Orkney islands – Eday, Flotta, Hoy, Rousay, Sanday, Shapinsay and Stronsay – and due to be completed by September.
Kate was able to give assurance that, despite the reserved nature of telecoms, the Scottish Government investment of £384 million – in the R100 north contract alone – will be truly transformational.
This is an example of where, because of its importance in Scotland, the Scottish Government is prioritising funding in an area that is not necessarily within its powers. That funding will deliver access to gigabit-capable fibre to premises and connections to more than 59,000 properties across the north of Scotland, including many of the islands.
It was positive to hear from Kate that, alongside existing subsea cables, which were delivered through the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, the 16 cables being installed will provide connections for more than 10,000 properties in island communities.
And while on the subject of island properties, I was also last week able to press Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands Mairi Gougeon on what actions are going to be possible around the issue of second homes in island communities.
Second homes clearly have a large impact on the social and economic make-up of Orkney and other islands, so I am particularly keen to learn what the Scottish Government can do in relation to the number of second homes used as short-term lets in Orkney and similar areas.
I was pleased to learn from Mairi that action to regulate short-term lets with licensing schemes and the option for local authorities to introduce control areas to manage the numbers and locations of such lets will be operational from 1 October this year.
Mairi said the Scottish Government considered that its legislation was appropriate for the whole of Scotland, including for island and rural communities, as it offers local authorities considerable flexibility as to how that is implemented.
I look forward to further progress on this issue, given the continuing housing issues being experienced not only by Orkney residents, but also those trying to move to the islands to carry out key jobs in the community.
This is a regular column by Emma Roddick SNP MSP. All Highlands and Islands MSPs have been offered the same space in The Orkney News to share their personal views.