INCREASED autonomy for the Scottish islands is on the cards should Scotland vote in favour of independence.
Meeting in Lerwick on Thursday, the Scottish cabinet responded positively to calls from Shetland, Orkney and the western isles for more powers to be devolved to the isles.
In what first minister Alex Salmond dubbed the ‘Lerwick Declaration’, the government is promising to set up a new ministerial working group to explore degrees of decentralising authority to the islands.
The move was welcomed by the leaders of all three island councils who launched their Our Islands – Our Future campaign in June this year.
The island authorities have also approached prime minister David Cameron, his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband, but have yet to receive an acknowledgement.
The campaign aims to gain control of the seabed around the isles, and calls for the islands to directly benefit from its natural resources such as fishing, the oil and gas industry as well as the emerging renewable energy sector.
The three island groups are also looking for guarantees that their status as individual local authorities will be maintained.
The first minister said he was of the firm belief that island communities should have a “maximum degree of local decision making”.
He told around 100 people who attended a public meeting in Lerwick’s Mareel: “We believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future – the essence of self-determination – therefore we support subsidiarity and local decision making.”
He added: “The control of the foreshore currently lying with the Crown Estate and control by the Treasury will come under Scotland’s control with independence.
“There is an irresistible argument that is should be controlled at coastal community and island level.”
He added that some of the controversy over the handling of the NorthLink lifeline ferry service to the northern isles could have been avoided had a mechanism been in place to allow local communities to be involved in the contract negotiations.
Salmond said: “These are just two examples of where you could make substantial progress on the agenda the island authorities have set out, and the government has now responded to in the most positive way.”
Shetland Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell responded with enthusiasm to the first minister’s declaration.
“We are absolutely delighted with the announcement of a ministerial working group.
“It shows that what we have proposed is being taken seriously within the government, and we are very interested to find out what the plans are going to be for the setting up of this group.
“What this does now is put the ball firmly in the Westminster court because we sent questions to them as well and we are interested to hear how they react.”
The remit of the working group will be agreed in the coming week with a view to hold the first meeting shortly thereafter.