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Cabinet visit comes at ‘critical time’

First Minister Alex Salmond
SIC political leader Gary Robinson - Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

SHETLAND Islands Council will be taking its campaign for greater autonomy right into the heart of government when the Scottish cabinet visits later this week.

In June, the three island councils – Orkney, Shetland and the western isles – launched a joint campaign to seek more powers regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum next year.

Expectations are high that first minister Alex Salmond will respond to the Our Islands – Our Future campaign when he visits Lerwick on Wednesday and Thursday.

SIC political leader Gary Robinson said on Monday that the timing of the cabinet’s visit to the isles was “excellent”.

He said councillors were presented with a “unique opportunity” to lobby the government not only on the constitutional future but also on issues such as the £40 million housing debt as well as external ferry links.

“I am quite hopeful that the cabinet or the first minister might make some response to the Our Islands – Our Future campaign while they are in Shetland.

“We are not going to miss this opportunity, but I am reasonably hopeful that this will be one of the things they all want to speak to us about,” Robinson said.

The three island councils were successful last week in raising the profile of their campaign when they wrote to UK prime minister David Cameron, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband demanding a response to their appeal.

The entire cabinet, apart from deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, plus a number of government ministers are due to arrive in Shetland on Wednesday.

They will engage in a series of meetings depending on their portfolio, but will all come together for the cabinet meeting in the council chamber on Thursday morning.

Government ministers will also host a public meeting with a question and answer session in Mareel on Thursday between 12.30 and 2.15pm.

Council convener Malcolm Bell said the cabinet visit comes at a “critical time for Shetland”.

“Apart from promoting what is good about Shetland, I would like to raise a number of issues including Shetland’s historic housing debt, homelessness, external transport and our constitutional future.”

On the housing debt he added: “Both governments – UK and the Scottish – are trying to pass the buck on this saying it is an issue for the other government.

“What we are saying is ‘no, you both have a locus in it’, and we have to come to a joint solution.

“I feel we have a very strong and unique case to have this issue dealt with once and for all, so that we can avoid having to raise council house rents to unacceptably high levels and build desperately needed new housing.”

Meanwhile Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said the Scottish government’s visit will be judged by what they say and not on how many photos they appear in.

“Alex Salmond’s government has an opportunity to respond positively to two Shetland issues.

“The first action should be to cancel the housing debt hitting Shetland’s housing tenants and the second is to stop the removal of power from island councils which is resulting in the centralisation of public services.

“The island councils’ questions for both the Scottish and UK governments are entirely fair and what the islands deserve next week is not photo opportunity after photo opportunity, but commitment after commitment,” he said.